I recently read a shocking news story about a lawsuit alleging that a Taco Bell employee poured boiling water on two customers. I suspect most people feel that a lawsuit under these circumstances is completely justified. If the allegations are true, then no person in their right mind doesn't want to see the wrongdoer punished.
While anyone with eyes can see the injustice that was done and sympathize with the alleged victim's attempt to obtain justice, I'd be willing to bet that few people in the general public give much thought to the mechanisms that allow victims to hold wrongdoers accountable. Those details matter, so why don't we take the time to discuss them at greater length?
As private citizens, we can sue anyone we want, for anything we want, but that does not mean a court will hear the case. If you've ever seen a vampire movie, one of the rules of vampires is that they're not allowed to enter your house unless you invite them in. In many ways, courts look at every petitioner as a vampire. We knock on the court's door by filing a lawsuit, but unless we state a good reason for being there, the court isn't going to let us in to argue our case.
What Is a Cause of Action?
One of the most important things we must state before a court invites us in is a cause of action. Simply put, a cause of action is what caused you to want to take action. Unless the court recognizes your cause of action, a judge will throw out the case. Stating a cause of action is how we frame alleged bad behavior that hurts us as a legal matter that a court can adjudicate.
Lawyers help their clients by identifying the laws that apply to their client's case and listing these causes of action in the lawsuit. Where things get tricky for a non-lawyer is that what might be a legitimate cause of action in, let's say, Georgia might not be a valid cause of action in Texas.
In the instance of the news story, a law firm has filed a lawsuit stating that the defendants are liable for:
- "negligence by the individual employees,
- negligent hiring and
- failure to control and prevent injuries to their customers,
- premises liability,
- and gross negligence."
Each separate allegation is its own cause of action. Should a jury find the defendant liable for any one of these wrongdoings, the plaintiff should be able to recover their losses.
Causes of Action in Plain English
In its most basic sense, negligence is a failure to fulfill a duty. For instance, even absent a law passed by a legislature, we all have a duty not to punch people. If someone breaches that duty, whether intentionally or not, they have been negligent. At all times and in all places, the law requires you to behave as a reasonably prudent person. Essentially, this means you are required to be conscientious of your actions and their consequences.
How do we know how a reasonably prudent person acts? Easy.
I'm going to assume that we all know what a "person" is, so we will focus on the first two parts: Reasonably and Prudent. To be prudent simply means to be careful. Where people get hung up is on the word "reasonably," as people may have different opinions as to what is considered reasonable.
To handle this, the law simply imagines a mythical person with average intelligence. If the defendant behaved contrary to the way an averagely intelligent careful person would act, they were negligent.
Now that we're all on the same page, let's look at how lawyers translate this single instance of bad behavior, pouring boiling water on someone, into separate causes of action.
Negligence by the Individual Employees
This is probably the most straightforward allegation of the lawsuit. "Negligence by the Individual Employees" alleges that the employees breached their duty to not harm the customers. Employees owe their customers the decency of not dumping scalding water on them.
Not only do employers have a duty to behave safely, but they are required to hire employees who will do the same. Essentially, the restaurant and the hiring manager are liable if they hire individuals that pour boiling water on their customers.
Failure to Control and Prevent Injuries to Their Customers
Not only are employers required to hire in a safe manner, they must also supervise (and potentially intervene) to ensure that those they oversee do not harm others. This cause of action asserts that the restaurant had no mechanism in place to prevent an employee from dumping boiling water on a customer, like they should have.
Premises liability is the area of the law that says property owners have a duty to mitigate dangers on their property, (think, the ubiquitous "wet floor sign," letting you know about potential slipping hazards). This cause of action can be a little confusing as it is arguing that the premises, by having boiling water pouring employees staffed there, has an inherent hazard that the property owner failed to mitigate.
This cause of action might seem a bit more difficult to understand, but gross negligence just means that someone's thoughtlessness caused such great harm, that it completely shocks the jury's (aka the general population's) senses. For instance, when a jury is told that Person A poured boiling water on Persons B and C, they might gasp in shock. The behavior is perceived as so egregious, that it has shocked the senses.
If the plaintiff proves gross negligence, this potentially puts the defendant on the hook for special damages, which are designed to punish particularly heinous behavior.
Framing Actions in Terms Courts Can Recognize Ensures Fairness
I suspect most people who heard about this case believe that it looks clear-cut. Again, we all know pouring boiling water on someone is wrong, so why couldn't an attorney just write out the allegations and ask the court to take action? Going through all these steps seems like a lot of work for nothing.
Well, it is twofold. Not every case going before a judge and jury will have a clear victim and an obvious perpetrator. Additionally, there could be more to this incident that wasn't reported in the initial news stories. That requires us to hear the defendant's case. The news report may be obvious, but until both sides speak, the facts of this controversy are anything but.
There is no specific law that reads "Thou shall not dump boiling water on someone else." Instead, our courts are set up to allow many fact patterns to fit under broad headings. The benefit is that the legislature doesn't have to spell out all of the nearly infinite ways available for us to hurt one another. At the same time, broad categories (such as negligence) give people notice of what kind of behavior is acceptable and what acts are prohibited.
Just as we must prove how someone is guilty before tossing them into jail, courts do not award compensation to every person alleging harm. Our courts of law allows us, the general public, to properly hear both sides of the case and review all courtroom-level evidence. This is so we can most accurately determine who is at fault for the accident. Additionally, it allows both the defendant and plaintiff to plead their case to the general public, via a jury.
While these mechanisms can seem like they slow justice down, they are there to ensure justice is correctly applied.