And so we find the Smiths. Adored by many the world over, the Smiths were known for their vast wealth, which was on display for all to see at their breathtaking mansion.
Curiously, there existed a unique “geological treasure” (so claimed by the “Wall-Drug-like billboards) in the front yard of the Smiths’ mansion that often was the primary draw for the visitors who traveled near and far. This “geological treasure” was a patch of land that allegedly defied the laws of physics. Specifically, the patch of land not only seeped clean water up to the surface (no matter how dry the season), but to the complete bewilderment of the science community, the seeping water froze to ice upon the patch of land, no matter how hot the weather. The result was a beautiful display of deep-blue ice that would defy the summer’s heat looking like nature’s ice rink right there in the Smiths’ front yard. Naturally, people traveled from near and far to observe the beautiful phenomenon. (More inquiring minds would have surmised that the Smiths industrial strength ice compressor, poorly hidden behind a small chain-link fence, clearly explained the ice, but that would be much less entertaining!).
Realizing the massive financial potential of the millions of visitors, the Smiths charged a nominal sum for the privilege of seeing the mansion and the ice “phenomenon” created and maintained by the Smiths.
Here’s where things get tricky. Each year, many traveled to see the ice treasure and venture onto the ice. Although the danger of slipping and falling was easily identified with minimal common sense, the Smiths still placed a small sign warning of the obvious danger of falling on slippery ice.
However, not so obvious was the danger of falling through the ice and drowning. In fact, it was a rare visitor (if any) who could have possibly appreciated or understood that falling through the ice and drowning was a risk at all, given that the area appeared to be more like an “ice rink” than anything that would have had depths of ice-cold water more than 10 feet deep.
The Smiths illogically rationalized the risky depths. Although year after year, a few unsuspecting visitors fell through the ice, the Smiths insisted that the holes should not, and could not be filled because many of the visitors came to try their hand at “ice fishing” and filling in the deep hole would ruin this portion of their business. Oddly, the Smiths actually knew the opposite to be true – they had conducted their own business studies and found that the visitors were there to see and walk on the ice, but not to ice fish. Yet year after year, when people drowned falling through the ice, the Smiths successfully and secretly avoided liability – after all, when you walk on ice, you risk injury – what jury would believe otherwise?
And so we find Edna. Edna, at the wise age of 79, traveled with her two sons to see the Smiths’ mysterious ice – maybe even walk on the spectacle! Just like the other visitors, Edna had never heard of the danger of falling through the ice. Also like the other visitors, Edna saw the sign warning of the obvious danger of slipping on the ice, so she assumed that walking on the ice wasn’t all that uncommon (and likely reasonably safe if one took the proper precautions). So, Edna with the strong assistance of her sons stepped out onto the ice (perhaps to relive her younger days). She wanted to be extra careful, so she wore an old hockey helmet to protect against head trauma if her sons lost their grip. It was then that Edna’s tragedy began. Before she completely understood the sound of the ice cracking below her, Edna found herself over her head in freezing water frantically fighting for her life as her lungs bit in pain as water filled the space where only air was meant to thrive. Her sons watched horrified – suddenly going into rescue mode while shock reared its ugly head.
Edna survived. Her legs did not. She was permanently disfigured and even permanently shamed – how could she have been so stupid so as to risk the injury of walking on this icy patch? She was a double amputee and she felt horribly stupid – preferring to not talk about the ordeal, much less have it publicized.
Notwithstanding her shame, Edna sought financial payment from the Smiths for her medical bills incurred. Edna’s theory was that, although she might be partially to blame for going on the ice, the Smiths should have warned her that the “ice-rink-looking” patch in the front yard actually had hidden thin patches of ice which could lead to serious injury or death when the ice cracked – and the Smiths knew because they had convinced numerous prior victims to “go away” because few could afford to litigate against the Smiths’ high powered legal team. Although Edna could have sued for far more, Edna only sought the $15,000 in medical bills that she had to pay out of her own pocket.
The Smiths offered Edna $600 and told her she was a fool – she should have known better (doesn’t everyone?). Edna decided she needed legal counsel and hired an attorney. But even with the attorney, the Smiths wouldn’t budge – so, the case went to trial. The jury was appalled.
The jury saw that the obvious danger of walking on ice in someone’s front yard is completely different than a “sink hole” that no one knew about (except the Smiths). The jury lashed out at the Smiths for their fabricated reason for refusing to fill in the holes after hearing the evidence showing the Smiths knew nobody ice-fished at the attraction and that several others had lost their lives or had been seriously injured – yet the Smiths refused to fill in the hole.
The jury awarded $150,000 in medical damages, but the jury really went after the Smiths to punish them, awarding $2.7 million in punitive damages (which turns out was the equivalent of only one week of profit typically generated by the amazing ice attraction). The next day the paper read “Women Gets Millions For Falling On Obvious Ice.” What the paper didn’t explain is that the jury award was reduced by the judge to about $500,000. Then, before the Smiths paid the amount awarded, Edna reached a confidential agreement with the Smiths to pay some undisclosed amount, otherwise the Smiths would have dragged the case through countless appeals, which the Smiths could afford, but Edna would likely not survive. No one knows the terms of the settlement.
If you read this story and find yourself upset at the Smiths, then you have taken the first step towards undoing the false information so often perpetuated about the McDonald’s Coffee case. The next step is to do your own research about the real facts of the McDonald’s coffee case in order to fully understand how analogous the Smiths and Edna are to McDonald’s and Ms. Liebeck. Peace!