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World-Famous Personal Injury Lawsuits and Class Action Suits

Updated on July 22, 2014

Every single lawsuit is vitally important, and there are certain suits that generate a greater level of interest than others. In this post, we take a look at six world-famous cases that either captured the public’s imagination or set an important legal precedent. These include three personal injury lawsuits and three class action lawsuits.

Class Action Lawsuits

Most Americans immediately think of movies such as Erin Brockovich or A Civil Action when the phrase “class action lawsuit” is mentioned. These types of lawsuits are also sometimes known as civil actions because they take place in civil courts. The huge sums of money awarded usually make headlines, but in actual fact, numerous Supreme Court decisions that changed the nation’s history actually began as class action lawsuits.

1. Scopes Monkey Trial

This landmark 1925 class action lawsuit is officially known as The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, but it is more famously known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. In that year, the state of Tennessee passed the Butler Law, which effectively banned the teaching of the theory of evolution in state classrooms. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) bitterly opposed this new law and asked for people to openly teach Darwin’s theory in schools.

John Thomas Scopes was a biology teacher, and he readily accepted the challenge. He was subsequently arrested, but he had the ACLU backing his defense with legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow as his attorney. The state hired William Jennings Bryan, former U.S. presidential candidate, as its lawyer. Bryan was happy to take on the case, as he believed the theory of evolution could cause problems with radical movements, and he was adamant the word of the Bible should be interpreted literally.

It was deemed to be the trial of the century, and hundreds of reporters and spectators descended on Rhea County Courthouse when proceedings began in July 1925. It quickly became apparent that Scopes' breaking the Butler Law was not the main issue; instead, the main arguments focused on Darwin’s theory versus the interpretation of the Bible. Bryan claimed the theory was “millions of guesses strung together” while Darrow attacked the Genesis story and said it was not something that corresponds with modern thinking.

When Bryan was called to the stand as an expert on the Bible, he was ruthlessly interrogated by Darrow and finally began to crack under the strain. After constant probing, he finally admitted the word of the Bible should not always be taken literally. Though Bryan’s reputation suffered, his testimony was stricken from evidence by the judge, and ultimately Scopes was found guilty of breaking the law and fined $100. Although Bryan “won” the case, the media claimed he lost the argument, and he died just six days after the case concluded.

Evolution was not taught in classrooms again until the 1960s (the Butler Law was repealed in 1967 in Tennessee and 1968 in the United States), and to this day it is an issue that provokes heated debate.

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Scopes Monkey Trial

2. Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement

This agreement, known as the MSA, involved all the major tobacco companies, 46 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and five other American territories in 1998. It is the single largest civil litigation settlement in our nation’s history, and its main goal was to decrease the level of smoking, particularly among young adults, in the United States. Each individual state was represented by its own attorney general, who filed a lawsuit against each of the six biggest tobacco companies in state court.

The tobacco companies included Commonwealth Tobacco, Lorillard Tobacco Company, Liggett & Myers, R.J Reynolds Tobacco Company, Brown Williamson Tobacco Corporation, and Philip Morris Inc. The MSA settled these state lawsuits, which had sought billions of dollars in medical costs associated with the treatment of illnesses related to smoking. The original participating manufacturers agreed to pay at least $206 billion over the first 25 years of the agreement.

It was yet another landmark case, as it changed the way tobacco companies were allowed to operate. From that point on, there would be a number of restrictions created for the marketing, advertising, and promotion of cigarettes. No longer could tobacco companies create ads that targeted very young audiences, and outdoor advertising of cigarettes and tobacco products was banned. Additionally, several million documents relating to the tobacco industry were made public. Since this case was settled in 1998, an estimated 40 more tobacco companies have signed the agreement and must obey its terms.

3. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

This class action lawsuit came after the Exxon Valdez supertanker crashed against Bligh Reef and spilled an extraordinary amount of diesel fuel, oil, and industrial chemicals into the ocean. This 1989 environmental disaster was considered the worst in American history until the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Prince William Sound, located on the south coast of Alaska, was the most affected area in 1989. When the Valdez crashed, it spilled a total of 11 million gallons of oil, and its effects were catastrophic for the local population.

The spill had massive implications for the native communities in Alaska, since many of them are cut off from the outside world and depend on hunting and fishing for sustenance. Alaska fisheries and other industries were hit hard, and as a result, 32,000 people launched a class action lawsuit against the oil company. The plaintiff class included natives of Alaska, fishermen, landowners, and others who had their lives affected by the disaster.

A federal court heard the case, and in 1994, the jury awarded the plaintiff class $5 billion in punitive damages. However, this was not the end of the story, and in 2001, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the original damages were excessive, though the following year a U.S District Court judge changed the award back to $4 billion. In 2006, the amount was reduced to $2.5 billion, and soon after the Supreme Court reduced it once again, this time to just over $500 million. Ultimately, Exxon probably paid out around $1.5 billion after interest.

It is clear, however, that this particular class action lawsuit wasn’t just about financial compensation. The spill made it necessary for the relevant authorities to take a close look at how oil was transported through the area. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 banned oil tankers that had previously spilled more than a million gallons of oil in the area from traveling through Prince William Sound. Unfortunately, other disasters ensued, and the aforementioned 2010 BP incident claimed the lives of 11 people and resulted in around 210 million gallons of oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico.

Personal Injury Lawsuits

Personal injury lawsuits are filed when someone sustains an injury and believes another party is at fault. While many personal injury cases are settled out of court for relatively small sums of money, there are some cases where the amount claimed by the plaintiff runs into the millions. Below, we look at some famous personal injury cases that hit the headlines.

4. Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants

Although this was technically a product liability lawsuit, this 1994 case is worth including because it captured the attention of the world’s media. Stella Liebeck was a 79-year-old woman who filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s after suffering third-degree burns in her pelvic region when hot coffee purchased from the fast food restaurant spilled in her lap. It was initially dismissed by some as a frivolous lawsuit, and it appears McDonald’s thought the same, as the global giant rejected the opportunity to pay an out-of-court settlement.

While the injury may seem innocuous, it caused a great deal of distress to Liebeck, who spent eight days in a hospital and underwent skin grafting. Incredibly, she ended up needing two more years of medical treatment after the incident. After purchasing the coffee from a drive-through McDonald’s store in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and began to remove the lid. Unfortunately, she spilled it on her lap, and her cotton sweatpants absorbed the coffee, which caused the serious burns.

In court, her lawyer argued the coffee was far too hot at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit and was more likely to cause serious injury than coffee from any other location. Liebeck wanted $20,000 in damages, but once the fast food company refused, things went sour and the plaintiff was awarded $160,000 to cover medical bills, as well as another $2.7 million awarded in punitive damages. However, this amount was reduced to $640,000, and eventually Liebeck settled with McDonald’s for an undisclosed amount.

5. Terrence Dickson

For some, this falls under the “only in America” category of irony, as it involved burglar Terrence Dickson successfully suing the owner of the property he stole from! It really is an extraordinary case, which occurred in Pennsylvania. Dickson’s victim was on vacation, and the burglar had no problem breaking into the property.

Things took a bizarre turn, however, when he tried to leave the premises. He attempted to leave the property via the garage door, but when he found it was malfunctioning, Dickson decided to use the house door instead. Yet as he tried to make his escape, the door connecting the garage and home became locked after he pulled it shut, and the hapless burglar was trapped inside for eight days until the astonished owner came back and found him.

One would imagine the burglar would have just been happy to get free from the garage, where he survived on Pepsi and dried dog food, but instead he sued the homeowner because the entire episode upset him and caused depression. Incredibly, Dickson won his case and received $500,000! It remains one of the strangest personal injury cases we have ever heard about.

6. Bret Michaels v. Tony Award Productions CBS

Bret Michaels is famous for being the lead singer of glam rock group Poison, and in recent times he has found additional fame for his appearance in reality dating show Rock of Love with Bret Michaels. Yet Michaels managed to fill even more column inches than normal due to his highly publicized personal injury lawsuit against the Tony Awards for an incident that occurred in 2009.

He began the show singing with Poison, and as he was nearing the end of the performance, a big piece of the descending set hit him on the head and knocked him to the ground. Initially, it was believed his only injuries were a broken nose and a split lip, but the following year he suffered a massive brain hemorrhage and was rushed to a hospital. Michaels then filed a lawsuit against the Tony Awards on the grounds that the incident was responsible for causing head trauma and the ensuing hemorrhage.

In the lawsuit, Michaels claimed he asked for specific directions when leaving the stage but was simply told to exit at the rear. According to the Tonys, Michaels was to blame, and the organization tried to spin the incident in its favor. The singer claimed he didn’t initially want to file a lawsuit, but the brain hemorrhage caused him to change his mind. In May 2012, it was announced that Michaels had settled the case, and he thanked the Barrow Neurological Institute for saving his life.

Bret Michaels Hit on Stage

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Lawsuits come in all shapes and sizes. Whether it involves a single individual launching a personal injury lawsuit or a host of people coming together to file a class action lawsuit, it is the job of attorneys to ensure justice is served. We are lucky to live in a great nation where the law can protect the innocent and the vulnerable elements of society.


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