Personal Injury lawsuits: Trying to Recover What Was Lost


A patient takes some medicine tainted during its manufacture.  The resulting illness is nearly fatal.  A woman riding a bicycle in traffic is hit by a car trying to navigate around an illegally parked delivery truck.  Her hospitalization puts her family finances in jeopardy.  A driver stopped at a traffic light is rear-ended by another driver who is texting.  The injury causes a permanent disability.

These are all personal injury cases.  If you were judge and jury how would you resolve the cases?  Was negligence involved?  Who should be held responsible for the injuries and damage?

“It’s a complicated area of the law,” says Judge T.E. Cauthorn, founder of Cauthorn Nohr & Owen.  “The common objective in these cases is to restore what was lost, to the extent that’s possible.” 

And there’s the rub.  More often than not, there is no single person or entity clearly deserving all the blame.  It’s more likely that there are several contributors to the injury or damage, further obscuring responsibility.

In recent years the most famous case of personal injury was the hamburger chain’s hot-coffee case in which a woman opening a just-purchased cup of coffee accidently spilled it in her lap.  The hot coffee produced serious burns and considerable suffering.  She sued, and was awarded $2.9 million in damages, an amount later reduced.  Many considered that an outrageous sum from a runaway jury.   

It’s often difficult to restore what was lost.  Time lost from work cannot be replaced.  Permanent injuries can burden a victim for a lifetime.  How do you restore a lost limb or your overall health?  Damaged relationships are often irreparable.

What’s more, to some plaintiffs having their “day in court” is worth more than the financial settlement.  If the injury is a result of sexual molestation, many women want to tell their story publicly to protect other potential victims, and to do so they forego an out-of-court settlement.  In this case, prevention is a higher value than restitution.

In the hamburger chain’s case, the plaintiff had initially asked for $20,000 to cover her current and anticipated medical costs, but the hamburger chain offered only $800.  That’s when she hired a personal-injury lawyer.

That lawyer did his homework.  He learned that the hamburger chain required franchisees to heat the drive-thru coffee to 180-190 degrees so it would still be hot after customers drove away.  Unfortunately, at that temperature coffee will cause serious burns within two to seven seconds.  As a result of the spill, the victim — a passenger in the car — was hospitalized for eight days, suffered permanent disfigurement and was partially disabled for two years.  

Not all cases are that dramatic, but in any injury case there is potential for further loss if the plaintiff’s attorney is ill-prepared or inexperienced and thus unable to get to a fair settlement that can go a long way toward restoring what was lost.  

“It is indeed complicated, which is why injured parties should select attorneys who have considerable experience with personal-injury cases,” Judge Cauthorn says. “Clients should be willing to go to court because defendants tend to be more flexible if they know the plaintiffs are serious about getting a fair result.”


The CNO Team