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“Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument”

In 1992 Stella Liebeck ordered a cup of coffee at a fast-food chain drive through. The coffee spilt, causing Ms. Liebeck to suffer third degree burns. Her lawsuit against the fast food chain has become legendary in many circles, and is commonly believed to be the reason many take-away coffee cups carry the words “Caution: The Contents may be Hot”.

What is less well-known about the case is that Ms. Liebeck originally sought a relatively small sum in compensation – just enough to cover actual and anticipated medical expenses, and loss of earnings for her daughter who provided her care. The fast food chain refused. She attempted to enter mediation and settlement negotiations. The fast food chain rejected her attempts.

The result?

The American jury settled – awarding compensatory and punitive damages totalling almost $3million US dollars (although this was significantly reduced by the judge). The parties ultimately settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

An interesting story, but how does a legendary American dispute impact on the Belfast business market?

Lawsuits can be distressing for both parties, with reputations, finances and personal relationships on the line. It can be as unnerving for any CEO to receive a summons to court as it is for the individual taking the case, but as the fast food chain found out, it can be costly not to take such things seriously.

The Liebeck case, and more recent UK cases too, demonstrate it can be costly to both parties not to give fair consideration to mediation or settlement negotiations. It also pays to do your research before entering into any argument, and early engagement of the right experts (be it to value a claim, or to advise on the optimum temperature for coffee) can save time and money.

Many an individual will respond to litigation with the question of “What will it cost me?”, regardless of whether they believe they are in the right or wrong, and in most cases this is a question posed to the lawyers. The last thing the client often wants to hear is that they will need to spend more money on an expert opinion. However engaging experts, such as forensic accountants or engineers, early on can often help prepare for any surprises along the way.

As experts we’re always happy to have the conversation about if, where and how we can help. This could mean to help you negotiate settlement, to mediate or give evidence at court.

To quote Desmond Tutu “Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument”.