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In 2004, a couple was hit by a truck while in a crosswalk of a grocery store parking lot. As a result, the man suffered back injuries that ultimately required surgery. The surgery was only partially successful leaving the injured man in chronic pain and causing him to lose his job at a golf shop. He says he is still unable to pick up two buckets of golf balls at one time. The driver of the truck admitted liability, but the case went to trial on damages only.

The plaintiff was seeking $458,724.00 for pain and suffering, based on calculations, presented to the jury, by his attorney. But, the jury only awarded the plaintiff $62,500.00. Why? We can’t be completely certain, but one reason, according to the Utah Supreme Court, was that the defense attorney argued that the plaintiff’s method for computing non-economic damages could result in an excessive verdict; he indicated that such an occurrence in this case would be similar to the highly publicized result in what has become known as the McDonald’s “Hot Coffee” case. During his closing arguments, the defense attorney said:

“Ladies and gentlemen, they want a lot of money for this. A lot of money. . . . How many days has it been since the accident? How many days for the rest of his life? And how much per day is that worth? That’s what’s been done here. That’s how we get verdicts like in the McDonald’s case with the cup of coffee.”

The plaintiff’s attorney objected to the comparison; the trial judge overruled his objection. After years of pain and suffering, surgery, loss of income, and then proving his damages case in court, the plaintiff watched it slip away due to an inappropriate closing argument by the defendant. If the reference to the “McDonald’s coffee case had not been made, would the award have been different? Fortunately, even though potential justice may have been delayed, the injured man will have the opportunity to seek reasonable compensation for serious injuries that were not his fault.

In a unanimous ruling, the Utah Supreme Court found the statement should inflammatory and grounds for reversal; the defense attorney’s reference to the “McDonald’s coffee case” was enough to taint a jury and warrant a new trial. Chief Justice Christine M. Durham wrote the following, in a scathing indictment of the “Hot Coffee” reference.

“Given the uniquely iconic nature of this case, the passion it has produced in the media, and the general misunderstanding of the totality of its facts and reasoning among the public, we find it hard to imagine a scenario where it would be proper for a party’s counsel to refer to it before a jury,”

The court also ruled that the trial court’s dismissal of the loss of consortium claim for his wife was incorrect.

A serious injury can turn one’s life completely upside down. Injuries may be temporary or life-long, but they can still affect one’s inability to work, care for one’s self, or perform daily functions; those functions, once considered “easy”, are those we all take for granted. The sole purpose of any personal injury trial is to present evidence of an accident’s consequence to a jury which is tasked with the responsibility to evaluate and weigh all of the evidence, then determine a fair and equitable settlement. The purpose of closing argument is to summarize all the facts and "persuade”, not "prejudice" the jury. The defense attorney skewed this purpose, making an inflammatory comparison, one not based on any of the evidence presented. He took a highly-profiled, and very misunderstood case, and, with one short sentence, reduced the value of an injury victim’s pain and suffering.

Lawsuit Financial congratulates the plaintiffs on the reversal of this travesty of justice. We offer high praise to the Utah Supreme Court which stood up for justice and appropriateness at a time when corporate interests are embarking on a campaign to pervert civil justice and control our legislature and our courtrooms. One brave group of justices had the guts to stand up for the injured an disabled and against those well-financed corporate interests. This country needs more justices and more politicians to do the same. Who will be the next heroes for justice?

Mark Bello has thirty-three years experience as a trial lawyer and twelve years as an underwriter and situational analyst in the lawsuit funding industry. He is the owner and founder of Lawsuit Financial Corporation which helps provide legal finance cash flow solutions and consulting when necessities of life litigation funding is needed by a plaintiff involved in pending, personal injury litigation. Bello is a Justice Pac member of the American Association for Justice, Sustaining and Justice Pac member of the Michigan Association for Justice, Business Associate of the Florida, Tennessee, and Colorado Associations for Justice, a member of the American Bar Association, the State Bar of Michigan and the Injury Board.

One Comment

  1. Gravatar for Beth Noble

    I watched the documentary Hot Coffee recently at the Durham Film Festival and I wish everyone who may potentially be called as a juror would watch this. I watched 400+ people in the theater gasp and literally rock backwards in their seats when they saw the burn photos of Stella Liebeck's injuries and they finally understood the meaning of pain and suffering. This will be airing on HBO on June 27th.. pass the word and encourage folks to watch this. It's an eye opener!!!

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