Are Hot Beverage Lawsuits Frivolous?

hot beverage lawsuits in OhioA 43-year-old airline passenger who was scalded by a cup of boiling hot water poured by an airline stewardess has sued Southwest Airlines for $800,000 alleging negligence.  The lawsuit has revived the debate about frivolous lawsuits and the need for tort reform.

Angelica Keller of Smyrna, Tenn., a construction worker, was on a plane to Houston, Tex. in December 2011, when she ordered a cup of hot water to make tea.  (She was sitting in the front row of the plane and had no drop-down tray on which to sit her beverage.) Before Keller was able to place the tea bag in her paper cup (she was given the hot water without a lid), she spilled it on herself causing caused skin blisters and second-degree burns.

Keller filed her negligence suit against Southwest earlier this month.  For some, it was reminiscent of the notorious McDonald’s customer from New Mexico, Stella Liebeck, who spilled hot coffee in her lap in 1992 when she was a passenger in a vehicle driven by her grandson, and subsequently sued McDonald’s.

The car was not moving at the time of the spill, according to a story appearing in The Tennessean, but numerous rumors circulated at the time that Liebeck was drinking the coffee while she was driving.  Liebeck was originally awarded $2.7 million in damages from McDonald’s in a jury verdict.  The company was also required to better label the coffee as “Hot.”

However, many people do not know Liebeck had skin grafts across her body due to the injury and originally asked for only $20,000 to pay her medical bills.  She also never received $2.7 million.  The judge reduced the award to $640,000 and that amount was reduced even further in an undisclosed settlement with McDonald’s.

Many also do not know Liebeck’s coffee was served to her at 180 degrees, 40 degrees hotter than the typical coffee brewed at home.  So the lawsuit that many cite as a prime example of a frivolous lawsuit may not have been as outrageous as originally believed.

Despite this, several states have passed tort reform measures intended to weed out lawsuits which are considered trivial in an effort to stem what is considered a tide of “runaway” jury awards claimed to cost states millions each year.

Southwest officials have responded to the “hot tea” suit by accusing Ms. Keller of negligence.  She should be held responsible, the airline contends, because she chose her own seat in the front row and knew there were no drop-down tables available, yet she ordered the hot tea.

Ms. Keller is seeking $300,000 in pain and suffering as part of her litigation.  Whether there should be limits on pain and suffering—an issue often difficult to prove in a lawsuit—has long been an item of debate throughout the country.

Critics of lawsuits allege frivolous claims drive up medical costs, make liability insurance prohibitively expensive, and are also an economic development issue in the municipalities.

The reasoning is that legal costs figure prominently in luring new businesses to a geographic area.  Caps make rewards in lawsuits more predictable and businesses are more comfortable with limits.  Doctors who work in critical care also favor states with liability caps, the supporters of such caps allege.

An American Law and Economics Review study, completed in 2001, showed plaintiff awards in Alabama dropped about $20,000 on average after caps on tort suits were instituted.  The awards nearly doubled after the Alabama Supreme Court found the caps unconstitutional.  But “A” does not always equal “B”—just because there are no caps or less stringent ones does not mean people will file more suits that are not legitimate, those against tort reform point out..

About half of the states currently permit pain and suffering awards.  But tort reform measures haven’t gone unchallenged.  Many trial lawyers contend juries, not the legislature, should determine how much an injury is worth and say it damages the civil justice system when the public does not fully grasp the implications of personal injury and all the facts of a case.

The experienced attorneys at Slater & Zurz LLP will assist you in determining if your Ohio personal injury claim is one you should pursue.  When you or a family member has suffered injury because of the negligence, recklessness, or willful conduct of another or of a business entity, it is wise to discuss it with someone who is familiar with such cases and has the legal expertise to advise you.

Learn what legal rights you have by calling us at 1-888-534-4850 for a free and personal consultation or go to our website at and fill out the FREE CASE REVIEW at the top of the web page.  

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About slaterzurz

Slater & Zurz LLP is an Ohio law firm of highly experienced and respected attorneys. Over the last 40 years, we have developed a reputation for getting positive results for clients. We've been trusted with handling over 20,000 personal injury cases and our clients have received more than $120,000,000.

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