You’ve heard this one before — an old woman orders coffee at McDonald’s, scalds herself with the boiling-hot beverage, sues the fast food chain, and wins. And most likely your first thought may have been, “Wait, wasn’t that her fault?”
This now-classic story (which we previously covered in this article on not-so-frivolous personal injury lawsuits) is one of the reasons why it seems America is the land of the free and the home of the frivolous lawsuit. Such sensational cases grab headlines and become late-night talk show punchlines precisely because they’re the kind of lawsuits that make you go, “Hmmmmm!”
What is a frivolous lawsuit?
A lawsuit or claim is considered frivolous if the facts of the case are either baseless or without merit, and the intention of the lawsuit is to harass, delay, or embarrass the opposition.
Here are two examples of what clearly are frivolous lawsuits:
- In 2009, a fugitive wanted for murder kidnapped a couple and held them hostage. But when he fell asleep, the couple escaped. They sued their kidnapper, who then countersued them for breach of contract — he claimed they had an oral agreement to hide him from the authorities. His lawsuit was dismissed.
- In 2017, a woman sued Jelly Belly for fraud, claiming that the pack of jelly beans she bought used the words “evaporated cane juice” instead of “sugar” on their label. The case was dismissed as the packaging clearly indicated the “total grams of sugar per serving.”
It’s easy to see why these two cases were considered “without merit.” But some lawsuits that look frivolous on the surface may turn out to be based on legitimate grievances. Just like the case of Stella Liebeck versus the McSteaming hot coffee, here are two more so-called frivolous lawsuits that actually had merit.
Man sues company for their explosive product exploding
In September 1998, Gregory Roach and Gordon Falkner used an outdoor adhesive to install a carpet in the basement of a house. What they didn’t know was that the glue’s fumes were highly flammable. The volatile gas ignited, causing an explosion that engulfed the basement in a huge fireball and landed Mr. Roach in the hospital. He lost the tips of his fingers and most of his sight and hearing.
After spending 55 days in a drug-induced coma, Mr. Roach underwent 19 major surgeries and stayed for over 4 months in the hospital for recovery and rehabilitation. His medical bills totaled $3 million.
Mr. Roach and Mr. Falkner were blamed initially. After all, shouldn’t expert carpet installers know that the adhesive was explosive? And why did they use a product meant for outdoors in an enclosed space? Even Mr. Roach’s lawyer wasn’t sure at first if he had a case.
But here’s where Gregory Roach’s case turned out to be more than meets the eye. First, it was the homeowner (an elderly woman) who bought the can of Para-Chem’s outdoor adhesive and instructed the two men to use it. Second, the spark that caused the explosion was due to the homeowner switching on the hot water tank in the basement — its flames ignited the fumes.
And third, the only warning on Para-Chem’s product was written in 6-point type: “Do not use indoors because it’s flammable.” In comparison, the same outdoor adhesive manufactured by Para-Chem’s competitors had huge, bright, colorful warning signs (including an illustration of an explosion) on the lid and on the labels.
Mr. Roach’s lawyer discovered that Para-Chem’s adhesives had warning labels before, but the company deliberately omitted them from subsequent packagings. He argued that the incident could have been avoided had there been sufficient warning labels on the product. The jury agreed and awarded Mr. Roach and Mr. Falkner $8 million in damages. The case also prompted Para-Chem and other adhesive manufacturers to relabel their products.
The auntie-christ: Aunt sues nephew for giving her a hug
In 2011, Jennifer Connell attended the birthday party of her then 8-year-old nephew, Sean Tarala. He was so excited to see his favorite aunt that he jumped to hug her. Thrown off balance, Ms. Connell fell and broke her wrist. Two years and two surgeries later, she filed a personal injury lawsuit against her nephew because she had to spend $127,000 for her medical bills.
The bare facts sound frivolous and absurd. But if you look deeper, the case of the aunt suing her nephew isn’t as frivolous as it seems. At first, Ms. Connell wanted her insurance company to pay for her medical expenses, but they offered to pay her only $1. So she sought to have the Taralas’ home insurance company cover her bills. However, she was told that under Connecticut law, an insurance company couldn’t be named in a personal injury lawsuit. So who else could she name but the person responsible for her injury? To be fair, she claimed in a television interview that she was never comfortable with naming little Sean in her lawsuit.
Unfortunately, she and her lawyer needed to convince the jury that her nephew’s actions were of an unreasonable, negligent kid instead of a reasonable 8-year-old. It took the jury only 25 minutes to toss out her case and award her with nothing.
The importance of expert legal counsel
Gregory Roach’s lawyer realized his client wasn’t foolish enough to behave irresponsibly with flammable materials, so he looked deeper into his case. Meanwhile, you may wonder if Jennifer Connell’s attorney tried to dissuade her from suing her nephew to get her insurance claims.
An experienced legal counsel can navigate through the legal tangle to help you understand your options and make a sound decision. So if you’re in the Washington state area and you need qualified experts in personal injury and family law, book an appointment with us at Buckingham, LaGrandeur, & Williams. Rest assured we will never treat your case frivolously, especially if it involves hot coffees, combustible materials, or giddy nephews.