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Jon Lewis
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McDonalds Hot Coffee in Reverse

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How many people have heard of the McDonalds Hot Coffee Case? What do you know about the case? Take the poll, and let us know. Also, if you want to know more about our justice system and the McDonalds case, see the new documentary.

Most people know that the jury rendered a large verdict for the woman injured by the coffee. And, most people think it was a frivolous case. How could a woman spill coffee on herself and get "millions" from McDonalds? Well, what about the opposite scenario? What about the case where the woman, or her family, should get millions, but gets little to nothing?

The latter situation is much more common in cases, i.e.: people who deserve compensation are short changed. The McDonalds situation is the aberration. Let me illustrate what I mean.

In two recent cases in Alabama, the juries gave much less than what the case was worth. Both involved car wrecks (not accidents) where the party at fault was CLEARLY at fault. In the first, the injured party was seriously injured and had over $120,000 in medical bills. A majority of these bills were paid by Medicare, but if the injured party wins his case, he has to pay back Medicare. This is the cost-shifting aspect of our system. Why should Medicare and the taxpayers pay for the negligence of another party who has insurance to cover the claim? They shouldn’t. So, the injured party recovers from the party at fault and pays back Medicare (or their health insurance carrier). This is called subrogation, and it allows for the proper shifting of costs.

In addition to the Medicare subrogation, there was also a $14,000 hospital lien. In Alabama, hospitals have a right to file a lien instead of filing with your health insurance carrier or Medicare because they can collect more from the automobile insurance carrier than from the health insurance carrier or Medicare/Medicaid. Here is the lien statute:

Section 35-11-370

Lien declared.

Any person, firm, hospital authority or corporation operating a hospital in this state shall have a lien for all reasonable charges for hospital care, treatment and maintenance of an injured person who entered such hospital within one week after receiving such injuries, upon any and all actions, claims, counterclaims and demands accruing to the person to whom such care, treatment or maintenance was furnished, or accruing to the legal representatives of such person, and upon all judgments, settlements and settlement agreements entered into by virtue thereof on account of injuries giving rise to such actions, claims, counterclaims, demands, judgments, settlements or settlement agreements and which necessitated such hospital care, subject, however, to any attorney’s lien.

(Acts 1955, No. 488, p. 1098, §1.)

So, the injured party has to pay back the hospital $14,000, and he has to pay back Medicare for what they paid on the $120,000.00. And, he has to live with some very traumatic injuries. If the case cannot be settled without litigation (and in this case, it had to be litigated), the injured party will also have to pay the attorney one-third to forty percent of any amounts recovered plus expenses of litigation.

What is that case worth? Well, a jury said it was worth $30,000.00. Is that right? After the attorney’s fee and hospital lien, the injured party has $6,000.00 to pay Medicare and compensate him for his injuries. They don’t put that verdict in the paper, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce doesn’t tell you about that one.

Okay, what about the second case? A beautiful girl is in a car with her future fiance. They were graduate students in public health at Emory University. She was there on a full scholarship. She had graduated Duke with honors and gone to Africa to help with the unfortunate children in Africa before coming back to the States for her graduate degree. They had been to a public health seminar at UAB in Birmingham, and he was taking her to meet his grandparents. On the way, a young man with a history of speeding came across the center line, pushed them over and hit them head on. The beautiful woman with so much potential was killed. Her fiance was injured, but not seriously, and the other young man had some injuries as well, but he was not killed either.

What is such a life worth in Alabama? Zero. You cannot ask a jury that question. Alabama is the only state where you can ONLY ask to punish the other party, not compensate the family of the individual who was killed. So, what happens to this young man who carelessly took a life?

Well, he only had $25,000.00 of insurance coverage, and he was only about 21 years old and worked in a factory making about $18,000/year. The parents wanted something on his record because he showed no remorse whatsover so they refused to accept $25,000 for their daughter’s life. They filed suit. What did the jury do? They gave a verdict for $30,000.00. This young man goes on about his life while this family has lost a treasure. Again, that verdict doesn’t make the papers.

These two cases happen much more often than cases such as McDonalds, but no one ever hears about them. The system is not broke, but large corporations use these rare "outrageous" verdicts to make you think the system doesn’t work. It works, and when it doesn’t, it is typically in situations like the two examples above. Think about this next time you hear how juries are out of control.

If you want to contribute to the scholarship fund set up at Emory, you can visit this site. What do you think about this? Let me know. Leave a comment.