March 7th, 2017 by JBWK

Submitted by Conway H. Sheild, III.

We are now all familiar with the well-publicized case of Stella Liebeck, the 79 year old woman who bought a cup of coffee for $0.49 at a drive-thru McDonald’s in New Mexico.  She placed a cup of coffee between her legs to open the lid, she spilled the coffee and she scalded herself.  She sued McDonald’s alleging that the coffee was too hot, and the jury awarded her $160,000.00 to compensate her for injuries and $2.7 Million to punish McDonald’s; while the punitive damage award was greatly reduced on appeal, this case did indicate how broadly Tort law will go to define when an injury or property damage can be recoverable. 


            There are really three areas in which an injured party may recover for personal injury or property damage, they being intentional torts (often covered by criminal law), negligent torts, and strict liability.  Clearly if your neighbor walks in your yard and punches you in the nose, he has committed an intentional tort and while it may be subject to criminal prosecution as well, that neighbor would be responsible for any injuries that he creates because of his intentional act.  However, one does not have to intend a result in order for them to be held liable; the law has determined that we all have duties to one another and to their property, and if we violate that duty to the point that there is an injury (absent of the fact we intended it), by negligent act, which is that we failed in that duty, we would also be liable.  Negligence has been defined as the failure to observe reasonable care, and the failure to do so can, as indicated, lead to liability on the part of the person who failed in that duty.


            Suppose someone does not intend to injure someone else and acts with reasonable care; can they still be liable in tort law?  The answer is absolutely.  The third major area of tort liability, along with intentional torts and negligence, is known as strict liability- liability is imposed even in the absence of intent to injure or negligence.  Generally speaking, the best example of strict liability is that a manufacturer is strictly liable for injuries caused by its products, and there is strict liability for defective products which lawyers call products liability.  While the best example of this has been cars with defectively manufactured parts which result in injury, there are also other examples of such injuries, for instance in the manufacture of defective washing machines, etc. Even if the product is properly manufactured or designed, the manufacturer can still be strictly held liable for failure to warn the user of danger by the product or some risk associated with it.  The best example of this is birth control pills, and other pharmaceuticals which while providing a benefit, often increase the risk as far as a health hazard.  Under current law the manufacturers are required to warn the user of the risk, however, so that they can watch for symptoms, have regular check-ups, etc.  


            So, tort law is fairly straight-forward as far as its philosophy, right?  Wrong!  There are two varying exceptions that need to be considered, one of which is what if the victim is partly at fault for the event which causes injury.  For instance, a pedestrian ignores a “Don’t Walk” sign and steps into an intersection where she is struck by a car which is going ten miles over the speed limit; the driver was negligent for speeding and perhaps could have avoided the accident if the driver had been maintaining a safe speed, but the pedestrian was also negligent in not observing the sign and her negligence contributed to her being injured.  Some states, including Virginia, recognize the doctrine of contributory negligence which prevents a recovery.  While this is the law in Virginia, many states have now resolved this by banning contributory negligence as a standard, and have adopted a “comparative negligence standard”, but that has not yet come to Virginia, but under that standard the jury is assigned the task of quantifying the degree of fault on each party and allocating damages to the plaintiff based on that.  Accordingly, if the speeding driver is 80% responsible for the accident, the driver would pay 80% of the damages and the pedestrian would be left to bear 20% of the cost.


            However, there is another concept which in fact has been at bar to recovery in many actions where an injury actually did occur, generally speaking to someone who was not at fault or had not violated any duty.  For instance, a driver going into the Hampton Roads Tunnel, while texting, swerves in his lane, runs into another car, causing both property damage and personal injury to the driver.  Clearly, the driver at fault would be responsible from a liability standpoint for both personal injury and the property damage, under standard tort law, but how far does this concept of compensating for injury go?  For instance, if someone behind the car is late for a meeting or an appointment where compensation in some form would have resulted to that person, can they recover?  The courts have engaged in line-drawing to determine where the lines should be drawn as far as recovery for an injury.  The courts generally favor a definition where the negligence always implies a duty to foreseeable persons for foreseeable harm, and generally speaking only those injuries/property damage which are foreseeable because of the event (which was clearly caused by the negligence of a party who violated his duty to others) can recover.  Virginia has numerous case law decisions based on this foreseeability standard.  Accordingly those persons behind the car that caused the accident in the tunnel, who cannot get through it, while they may have suffered some economic injury because of this person’s carelessness, cannot recover.  The application of this concept in events which create emotional harm is also tough to apply, but generally speaking if someone, perhaps a family member, suffers emotional harm because of an injury or death to a loved one, and develops emotional problems because of it, the question of whether or not they will recover, since this is not a direct or foreseeable act, is in doubt. 


            However, remember that remoteness in time and place is not generally the test.  In the case of the Exxon Valdes oil tanker, the spilling of millions of gallons of oil onto shore property where owners suffered physical damage was in fact determined that they were direct victims of Exxon’s negligence and so Exxon was liable to them for violating its duty of reasonable care, although the distance involved was huge.  Many more people suffered economic harm, without physical damage, as fishermen could not fish, boat rental agencies could not rent their boars to tourists, etc. and some people obviously paid higher gas prices.  Clearly the paying of higher gas prices, although economic harm, does not qualify for recovery.  While the people that owned the shoreline were clearly direct victims, it is doubtful if boat rentals agencies that could not rent boats would be covered, as this would probably be declared to be not foreseeable.


            The concept of tort law, as you can see, is not as simple as it appears, as often whether or not someone has wrongfully committed an act which caused an injury is not enough.  Other factors need to be considered, and before any action of civil litigation is initiated, these questions have to be answered.



Comments are closed.