You’ve probably heard about the woman who spilled coffee on her lap and sued McDonald’s. Maybe you’ve heard something about the burglar who fell through a skylight and sued.

Both cases have been cited as examples of “frivolous lawsuits.” Before passing judgment, however, it’s worth learning a few facts about those cases specifically, and tort law in general.

Also known as personal injury law, tort law has been developed over many centuries. It’s a vast, complicated, and ever-changing branch of law. It can be summarized, however, in a simple proposition: The infliction of injury is actionable.

Tort claims arising from car accidents, dog bites, medical malpractice, faulty products, falls, and assaults, are fairly common. Sources of claims, however, are as broad as human activity.

Tort claims can hold people responsible for alleged crimes, even when the accused is not convicted. O.J. Simpson was acquitted of double murder in a criminal trial. But he was found liable for Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman’s deaths in a civil trial. Although the jury in the criminal trial couldn’t find Simpson “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” the civil jury found it was more likely than not he was responsible for their deaths. Simpson didn’t go to prison, but he was ordered to pay a total of $33.5 million to the victims’ families.

Personal injury law is a vast, complicated, and ever-changing branch of law. It can be summarized in a simple proposition: The infliction of injury is actionable.

Some elements of personal injury law are fairly straightforward. For example, Washington state law holds pet owners strictly liable for dog bites. In other cases, the plaintiff, the person who brought the claim, must prove intentional or negligent conduct by the defendant. This is where cases get complicated.

Who’s To Blame?

What if a motorist is rear-ended and injured? The other driver is at fault, right? Yes. But what if the injured motorist wasn’t wearing a seatbelt? He still may be compensated, but the award will be reduced if the court finds he contributed to his injuries by not buckling up and was partially at fault.

You can look up Washington state’s definition of “fault.” It is RCW 4.22.015. You will see that fault includes misusing a product, an unreasonable assumption of risk, or an unreasonable failure to avoid an injury, or to mitigate damages.

This brings us back to the woman who spilled coffee and the burglar who fell through a skylight.

In the better-known case, Stella Liebeck, 79, bought coffee at a drive-through in 1992 and spilled it on her lap as she tried to put sugar and cream in it. She was not driving the car. Her grandson was. The car was not moving.

The coffee was 180 to 190 degrees. You probably enjoy coffee at 135 to 140 degrees. Mrs. Liebeck suffered third-degree burns over 6 percent of her body. She was hospitalized for eight days and underwent skin grafts. She sued after McDonald’s declined to pay her medical expenses.

Her lawyers uncovered more than 700 claims filed against McDonald’s by people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. This and other evidence was presented to a New Mexico jury in an eight-day trial. The jury awarded Mrs. Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages. An additional $200,000 in compensatory damages was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Mrs. Liebeck was partially at fault.

In the lesser-known case, an 18-year-old climbed onto a roof at a Redding, Calif., high school in 1982 to steal a $35 floodlight. The young man fell 27 feet through the skylight and was permanently disabled. His lawyers obtained a $260,000 up-front settlement with the school district’s insurer, plus $1,500 a month, for the rest of the man’s life.

The settlement was ridiculed. But consider that the skylight had been painted over. It wasn’t visible. Nine months earlier, a 19-year-old man on his way to a swimming pool at another high school in the same school district fell through a painted-over skylight and died.

Recourse for the Injured

For centuries, people who have been injured have turned to the justice system. If you are injured, you need a compassionate lawyer who obtains the facts and knows the law.

Seattle personal injury lawyer Roger Davidheiser of the Friedman Rubin Law Firm has more than 28 years of courtroom experience. He can be contacted at (206) 501-4446.