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Frivolous Lawsuits

Posted: April 05, 2017

Frivolous lawsuits have been on the rise in the society today. The cases have ranged from the incidence of the coffee burn to the story of the lost pair of pants. The court cases of Roy L. Pearson v. Custom Cleaners and Stella Liebeck v. MacDonald’s Corporation are the two controversial cases apparently recorded the highest criticism concerning the judicial decisions made. The conclusions by the jury and the judges involved in these cases were both fair and reasonable despite welcoming ethical concerns and public criticism.

Case statement

In the first court case involving Roy L. Pearson and Custom Cleaners, the appellant, who also happened to be an administrative judge, Roy Pearson, sued the Chung’s dry cleaners, labeled Custom Cleaners for allegedly contravening the common law violations and fraud of the Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act in the District (Patrice, 2016). The lawsuit was grounded on the fact that the Custom Cleaners displayed “Same Day Services” and “Satisfaction Guaranteed” in their store. The facts of the case have their underlying origin in a dispute filed by the appellant, where he accused the defendant of losing his suit trousers and in the end attempting to substitute the pair of trousers with one that did not belong to him. On the contrary, the accused defended the claim by stating that the Custom Cleaners gave the appellant the same pair of trousers that he had brought in for alteration, which he denied. The plaintiff further stated before the court that the defendants did not honor their statement of “Satisfaction Guaranteed” to its clients, which amounted to unfair trade practice under the law.

Upon listening to the case presented before him, Judge Bartnoff recorded that, based on the alleged sign in the store of “Satisfaction Guaranteed each of the three defendants standing before the court, be liable to the plaintiff for the violations of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act. The liability was accrued each day the store was opened, for seven years (Patrice, 2016). According to the calculations presented by the judge, the damages amounted to 67 million dollars.

Judge Judith Bartnoff made an appropriate judgment on the award of the verdict. Moreover, she did the same when deciding on the fiscal award. The judge disseminated the rightful decision based on the appropriate definition and description given by the law of torts. When interpreting the law, one has to discard the absurd cases but still give another chance of reviewing it and the ruling Judge did the same way. In her report for consideration of the case, it was evident that Judge Pearson was unduly suing the Custom Cleaners for the lost pair of pants.

The Pant Case had both legal and ethical issues. Even though, in this lawsuit, there is no appropriate correspondence between the legal and the ethical issues. It was unethical to give the defendant a lawsuit of more than 54 million dollars for a lost pair of pants, even though he was allowed to file that lawsuit. It was also unethical for a professional Judge like Mr. Pearson to taint the image of Custom Cleaners by accusing it of not delivering according to the signs put in the store. It was also unethical for the plaintiff to demand more than 1000 dollars from the defendant, though he was allowed to do so (Patrice, 2016). A legal expert in American society is not expected to take advantage of the non-professionals and misuse their powers in manipulating judgments to be ruled in their favor. Therefore, the lawsuit filed by Judge Pearson constituted to a gross misconduct by the professional ethics of the legal officers in America.

Conventionally, the case was reasonably ruled, with a lot of common sense in it. The rejection of the sign showing “Satisfaction Guaranteed” but supporting the claim based on the controversy in the common law regarding fraud was logical in this scenario. The complaint concerning the unfair trade practice was properly considered in light of how practices would be understood and viewed by reasonable consumers. Even so, the court’s decision regarding this case attracted several ethical concerns as far as the issue of customer’s satisfaction is concerned. Taking the issue back to the public view, the Custom Cleaners did their best as per their sign by giving the customer a similar product with the same value as the lost product, which apparently was a fair treatment.

Based on the facts presented before Judge Judith Bartnoff, the Pant Suit Case qualifies to be a frivolous case. The judicial reasoning confirms that the Case was absurd, unnecessary, and probably not possible to win in the court of law. Probably, Judge Pearson, on the merit of being a judge thought that he could use the professional skills he has in law to manipulate judgment and get away with the huge amount of cash (Patrice, 2016). On the contrary, when the accused turned him down in paying that sum of money demanded before, the complainant lost his temper, and ultimately losing his professional mind as well. The plaintiff was not injured and had no significant financial loss from the initial incident. Thus, making the case a frivolous lawsuit.

Business owners in Custom Cleaning services can do a lot to prevent the similar Case from re-occurring. When digging into the finer details of the lost Pant Case, a very simple alteration in business practice could have avoided the whole debacle in the case. By then, the Dry Cleaning Company had a ticketing system of placing article sizes and ticket numbers on the clothing (Patrice, 2016). However, if the Custom Cleaners could add item description to the measures already available, therefore, there would be no similar debacle in the industry. Taking such precaution would help not only the customers, but also the company.

The second case involved Stella Liebeck, a 79-year old woman, who bought a cup of hot coffee from MacDonald’s outlet and spilled it on her laps when she was in her car outside the parking lot. She then sued the corporation for the burn and the jury awarded her approximately 3 million dollars to compensate for the suffered damages by the 79-year old.

The facts had laid before the court indicated that Mrs. Liebeck was not driving by the time she sustained the burn injuries; instead, her grandson was driving the car. It was also established that the car was not moving at the time when she spilled the hot coffee on her groin. Again, the findings of the facts determined that the coffee was not just hot as expected for normal temperature, but was dangerously hot. The corporate policy was, however, to serve the coffee at a hot temperature. The findings further revealed that the plaintiff suffered a third-degree burn, which could not be prevented by her cotton sweatpants. The injury necessitated skin grafts on the inner thighs of the 79-year old, an operation that took close to one week. Another underlying fact regarding this case is that this was not the first incident of third-degree burn from this corporation. Close to 700 cases had been reported before, of which some cases were settled (Clarkson, Miller, and Cross, 2012). Therefore, it was clear that MacDonald’s was not willing to change the policy, even if it was harming the consumers.

Stella, through Reed Morgan, her attorney, also filed allegations stating that the coffee served at MacDonald’s outlet was unreasonably harmful because of the extreme temperature at which it was served. Consequently, she wanted the defendant to be held liable for her mental and physical harm that the hot coffee caused during its consumption and sale on February 27. The complainant also pledged that the product in question was and is always manufactured and sold by the defendant, and served to the plaintiff in the same state it was during the sale (The mighty Quinn, 2002). Therefore, the complainant was not guilty of any fault and that the accused ought to be held responsible to the plaintiff under the second section of Torts’ restatement, 402 (a).

It is also important to add to the account that the product was defectively manufactured and served in a container with design defects. The defective production of the coffee was due to its extremely high temperature. Additionally, the design of the container used in serving the coffee was poor because it did not have the warning to the consumers, which is one of the safety measures to the consumers according to food safety policy. Thus, there is no doubt that MacDonald marketed its product defectively. Moreover, by the time Stella sustained injuries, the corporation was fully cognizant of the fact that the condition of serving the coffee to consumers was dangerous. It was also true that MacDonald knew of the negative consequences that would follow when one consumed the product at that temperature. However, they acted with wanton and willful disregard and a conscious indifference to the safety of the plaintiff, and any other customer, who consumed their product.

Finally, Stella’s attorney alleged that MacDonald was an expert manufacturer, distributor, and seller of coffee and that the corporation had the due responsibility of testing and inspecting the product for harmful conditions (The mighty Quinn, 2002). Even though, either they failed to observe this responsibility or they were negligent in accomplishing that duty. Alternatively, they carried out this task with a malice intention, while completely disregarding the dangers its clients would encounter when the outlet sold its coffee at the temperature at which they did. Consequently, causing the high likelihood of severe burns in connection with the product’s sale. Hence, it was worthy to consider that the third-degree burns sustained by Morgan’s client were particular faults of MacDonald.

The coffee at the defendant’s outlet was served at an abnormal temperature, which was approximately twenty to thirty degree Fahrenheit hotter than other restaurants selling the similar product. A decade before this case was presented before the court; over seven hundred people had submitted similar cases of burns and scalds, with some cases going unreported (The mighty Quinn, 2002). Despite these complaints, the hot temperature of coffee served at MacDonald remained the same.

How the 79-year-old spilled the coffee on her pelvic remains misunderstood since she was not driving the car. If anything, then the driver of the car, who was her grandson, had even pulled over the car to a parking lot so that she could add sugar and cream to her coffee safely (The mighty Quinn, 2002). Since the car did not have the cup holders, she had to put the coffee cup between her this and remove the lid. Unfortunately, when she tried opening it, the slick cup flipped backward pouring the hot coffee on her laps to the pelvic by saturating her cotton sweat pant. Before the emergency response could rescue her, she had already sustained a third-degree burn around her groin, thighs, buttocks, and genitalia.

The plaintiff got admission to the hospital for a whole week while getting treatments and another three weeks at home recovering. Upon her recovery, the complainant sought for a secret arrangement with the corporation and asked MacDonald for 20,000 dollars to cover for her hospital bills and her out of pocket spending during this period. The money was also to compensate her daughter’s days off work, which she spent taking care of her mother. However, MacDonald declined the proposal and was only ready to offer 800 dollars, which could hardly take care of the bills. Another fact of the case is that the defendant’s Quality Control manager agreed that the corporation was cognizant of the risks associated with the hot coffee (Clarkson, et al. 2012). The company, on the other hand, had not designed plans to create awareness to its consumers concerning the dangers concomitant with the coffee served at that temperature.

One month following the trial of this case, the judge reduced the punitive award by the jury from the earlier stated 2.7 million dollars to 640,000 dollars. In his arguments, Judge Robert Scott argued that this amount was almost three times the damage compensation. He added that the case was not a runaway, and therefore, the amount revised would sound appropriate to deter and punish the defendant for not observing the safety standards by serving people with dangerously hot coffee According to the jury’s decision, the corporation’s manual of operation required the franchisee to serve its coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees. The jury also realized that MacDonald’s did not warn the customers of the risks that were associated with the coffee served at that temperature even after being aware of the dangers. Following these charges, the defendant had to pay the plaintiff 2.7 million dollars for the loss suffered (Clarkson, et al. 2012). In as much as the court’s decision sounded ridiculous, it was made within the framework of the law. However, the ruling of the case faced various ethical issues, with critics and the public questioning the justice by the jury, who ruled over the case. Conventionally, it was publicly thought that Stella was to be liable for the injuries she suffered since she sustained the injury outside the corporation premises, which could also be because of her negligence. Again, both the plaintiff and the defendant appealed the decision of the judge from the trial in December 1994. It is believed that the two parties settled the compensation secretly out of the court despite being a public case for an amount less than 600,000 dollars.

From the case summary, it was evident that the Judge Robert Stock made an appropriate judgment based on the law. He adequately applied the law regarding principles of compensatory damages and brought to the attention of the court the essence of this ruling by stating, “This case was not a runaway case.” The 12-bench jury, on the other hand, did not make a fair judgment by estimating the daily profit made by the defendant to decide on the cost of punishing comparative negligence of the corporation.

Ethically, the rulings of this case could have been done in a manner that was fair to both the defendant and the plaintiff. The underlying reality is that both parties were in the wrong. MacDonald’s Corporation did not safeguard the life of its clients by manufacturing and selling the hot coffee even after knowing the associated dangers. The accused was, therefore, liable for reasonable compensation of damages caused. Conversely, the plaintiff was also partly responsible for the costs. She had the responsibility of taking precautions to avoid the burns, but she never took all the necessary measures. Ostensibly, if the court will continue ruling judgments for the plaintiffs in similar cases, then people will stop being responsible and forget about their roles. The ethical issues relatively differ from the legal aspects. The ethical concerns focus on the ideal, that is, the expected behavior of the society. On the contrary, the legal issues look into the reality. It does not matter how unreasonable the gross punishment might sound, so long as the judgment is within the confine of the law.

The public opinion, together with several research bodies perceived the case to be that of frivolous litigation. An example is the ABC studio, where the case was termed as “the poster child of excessive lawsuits.” Another expert, Jonathan Turley referred to the case as “meaningful and worthy lawsuit.” All said and done, the facts of the case revealed that the case was a fluke and linked it to the loss of poor strategy and communication by an insurer who was not familiar with representing a franchise.

The business owners selling a similar product should prioritize the safety of their customers. All food outlets serving coffee ought to stick to the principles of serving coffee at 150 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid burns and scalds. Additionally, the restaurant owners should ensure that if they have to make a special arrangement of serving coffee at a higher temperature than the recommended, then they should make their customers aware of the possible dangers that they could face by consuming liquids at such temperatures. It is the duty of the manufacturers to ensure that the clients know the facts regarding their products before they buy them. Finally, yet important, they should make sure that children do not have access to scalding liquids.


Concisely, it would be worthy to conclude that the two cases, despite attracting robust criticism by the public, had some sensible and logical reasoning. At some point, some fairness was obtained in one way or the other. The cases’ summaries present that the Pant Case was an absurd and unnecessary case, making it frivolous lawsuit. However, the case involving Stella Liebeck and MacDonald’s corporation do not qualify to be a frivolous lawsuit based on the case findings.

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