What’s My Personal Injury Case Worth?
Published On: February 20, 2010
Is my case worth $1 million? $10 million? We’ve all heard the stories. “My friend broke her fingernail and got $150,000.” “My brother-in-law’s friend’s cousin’s son’s wife got $4 million when she fell at the A & P and broke her wrist.” “Bob Hartman got $2.7 million because he was rear-ended by a drunk driver and the drunk’s insurance company was afraid to go to court.”
How are these crash-to-riches cases possible?
Well, in a word, they’re not!
Are there multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements? Of course there are but they are based on major injuries, good liability and deep pockets.
Let’s face it, folks. Insurance companies are not in the business of handing out huge settlements – they’re in business to make money and unreasonable payouts fly in the face of their business model. Unreasonable (and unjustified) large payouts are just not the reality, they are simply urban legends.
Snopes.com quells the examples of alleged gazillion dollar recoveries from people filing outrageous lawsuits by researching the real facts (or lack thereof). The Stella Awards, named for Stella Liebeck, the plaintiff in the famed McDonald’s Burn Case (read the real story here) was a leader in putting out annual lists of crazy lawsuits with alleged crazy settlements and jury verdicts – but these lawsuits are not real, they are more examples of urban legends.
Really, Now. What’s My Case Worth?
Reality check everyone: Every case is different. Your rear-end case has a different value than your neighbor’s rear-end case. Sonny’s slip & fall case has a different value than Chastity’s slip & fall case. Chester’s product liability case is different than Field’s product liability case.
Why? Because every case has its own unique dynamic based on many of these factors:
- People/entities involved
- Medical providers
- After-the-fact witnesses
- Expert witnesses
- Insurance company(ies)
- Facts of the accident
Who’s at fault and to what extent?
- Injuries sustained
- Medical bills (past, present and future)
- Loss of earnings (past, present and future)
- Property damage
- Pain, suffering, inconvenience, embarrassment,
Scalding Water Burns Tourist in Restaurant
As you know, personal injury cases come in all shapes and sizes. There are, to name a few, traffic collisions, injuries when someone has a slip & fall, product liability cases and premises liability cases. I am using this premises liability case to illustrate the points raised in this particular article.
Note: This story has been fictionalized and all persons appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real people, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.
Facts: Kiki, a 30-year old female Japanese tourist visiting relatives, went to a Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles’s famed Chinatown for a family meal. Chinese Restaurants serving large parties often place a Lazy Susan on the center of the table to make it easier to serve the meal family style.
Early on, the restaurant placed a teapot filled with scalding water on the edge of the Lazy Susan. While Kiki, with her four-year old daughter Ling on her lap, and 11 other family members sat around talking, the condensation began to form on the outside of the teapot. Engrossed in conversation, no one at the table was paying attention to the Lazy Susan or the teapot until disaster struck.
Suddenly, the teapot was on its side and the contents spilled out all over Ling and Kiki. Little Ling began screaming and Kiki rushed to cover her in cold water all the time unaware that her own arm was drenched in hot water.
Kiki was able to save Ling from serious injury. Although Ling was burned, the burns were first-degree
and quickly healed, leaving no scars.
Unfortunately, Kiki, who was wearing a long-sleeved sweater at the time, was not so lucky. While Kiki tended to her child, the scalding water caused her polyester sweater to literally meld into the skin of her arm. She removed the sweater and several layers of her skin in the process.
Kiki, suffered second degree and third degree burns as a result. That night she went into shock and was rushed to the emergency room.
Kiki’s healing process was long and arduous. She returned home and underwent a major skin graft where they replaced the damaged and dead skin on her arm with skin from her scalp (and to answer your question in advance, her arm did NOT grow hair). She has been left with permanent, unsightly scars on her forearm.
Who’s Fault Is It That Kiki Was Hurt?
Well, this case had some unique twists and turns. In evaluating this case, several of the factors listed above had to be considered. The first, of course, was who was at fault was this incident?
On first blush, it appears to be the restaurant’s fault. However, it’s important to note that the plaintiff (the person making the claim) has the burden of proving that it is, in fact, the restaurant’s fault.
Since everyone at the table was talking when the incident occurred, we had no witnesses who could honestly say how or why the teapot tipped over. It was through the use of an expert witness’s, forensic analysis that we were able to develop the viable condensation theory.
The expert, a physicist, based his analysis on an examination of the location, the Lazy Susan, the dispenser from which the hot water was poured into the teapot, the teapot itself and the depositions of Kiki and Shuau, the restaurant employee who placed the teapot on the Lazy Susan. Shuau testified at her deposition, under penalty of perjury, that she was instructed by the restaurant to wait until the temperature gauge on the dispenser was pointing to red before filling the teapot with water.
“What does it mean when the needle points to red,” I asked.
“Dangerous.” “Dangerous?” “Yes, dangerous.”
The restaurant’s attorney covered his face with his hands upon hearing this admission. It is also important to note that an employer is responsible for the acts undertaken by its employees while in the course and scope of their employment.
This is not to say that the restaurant’s lawyers weren’t mounting a defense. The severity and degree of the injuries were definite and obviously caused by the hot water dispensed by an employee of the restaurant.
So what could they say to mitigate their responsibility? Simple: Kiki should have removed her sweater sooner and none of this would have happened! Yes, this was their defense. (Defense lawyers ALWAYS have a trick or two up their sleeve – click here to read Anderson Cooper’s relevant expose).
There were other family members there – why didn’t they take care of Ling while Kiki took care of herself? Actually, I hoped that the defense would bring this up at trial because what juror would buy that argument? If anything, it would inflame them because any parent, any human being for that matter, is going to tend to a child before they tend to themselves. That’s just human nature.
What Is Kiki Entitled To?
There are various types of damages that someone is entitled to.In Kiki’s case she was entitled to special damages and general damages. She sued the restaurant for Negligence for her injuries as well as Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress for having witnessed her daughter’s injuries. Since this writing is devoted to damages, I’m not going to go into any detail on the actual legal theories of liability.
Special, or economic, damages are those that are quantifiable such as past, present and future medical bills and loss of earnings that arise from the injury. In this case, Kiki had about $40,000 in medical bills incurred for the emergency hospital visit and her skin graft. It was agreed upon by everyone that these bills were reasonable and certainly necessary. Therefore, she was entitled to reimbursement for $40,000.
General, or non-economic, damages are subjective damages for pain, suffering, disfigurement, embarrassment, emotional distress, humiliation, loss of pleasure in life. Normally, I’d put the actual figure in here upon which we settled. However, I’m going to leave this to you. What do you think Kiki is entitled to by way of general damages? Please put your answer in the comments section!
“Wait!” You Say! “Didn’t You Forgot Something?”
Just checking to see if you were paying attention! No, of course I didn’t forget little Ling. That would be clumsy of me (not to mention a tad bit of legal malpractice). Thankfully Ling suffered no permanent injuries. She was scared and had some blisters which healed and left no scars. Naturally (and necessarily), she was included in the lawsuit.
Ling’s special damages amounted to $800 for a visit to a local doctor and some healing ointments. Again, both sides agreed that this was reasonable and necessary.
Again, I’m going to leave it to you to decide her general damages.