February 2022 | Volume 13, Issue 7
A jury in Marion County, Tennessee, ordered Cracker Barrel to pay a man $9.4 million after it found the company at fault for serving him a glass filled with a chemical instead of water.
The size of the award may be capped due to a Tennessee law on civil damages.
"The jury returned a verdict for compensatory damages of $4.3 million in just 30 minutes -- one of the fastest verdicts we have ever seen -- and awarded punitive damages of $5 million after only 10 minutes of additional deliberation," plaintiff William Cronnon's attorney Thomas Greer said in an interview with the media.
"The speed of the verdict, combined with an amount in excess of what we asked, speaks to just how dangerous the Cracker Barrel policy was," Greer said.
Cracker Barrel said it was "disappointed" with the award.
"While we have great respect for the legal process, we are obviously disappointed by and strongly disagree with the jury's award in this case, which involved an unfortunate and isolated incident that occurred at one of our stores eight years ago," Cracker Barrel Media Relations said in a statement emailed to the media.
"Although we are considering our options with respect to this verdict, we are glad this matter is behind us so we can better focus on caring for our guests and employees around the country," the statement said.
Cronnon was having lunch at a Cracker Barrel in Marion County in April 2014 when he took a sip of what he believed to be water, "only to immediately realize that it was not ice water but was some chemical that caused a burning sensation in his mouth and esophagus," according to court documents.
It was later discovered Cronnon had been served the chemical Eco-San, which was being used as a cleaner in the kitchen area, according to court documents.
Eco-San, described as a corrosive chemical in the lawsuit, caused permanent and serious internal physical injury to Cronnon, the complaint said.
Cronnon is still suffering from symptoms, including injuries to his mouth and esophagus, Greer said, which have incurred and will continue to incur medical expenses.
"Cracker Barrel's negligence didn't just cause (my client) physical harm; it took away part of his identity," he said.
- Assess the relative strength (or weakness) of the case regarding negligence liability.
In your author’s opinion, this is a strong case for negligence liability. The theory of negligence per se (“per se” means “the thing speaks for itself”) holds that sometimes evidence of negligence is so strong that the case should make it to the jury based on that evidence alone. In your author’s opinion, this is a negligence per se case.
- As indicated in the article, the jury returned a verdict for compensatory damages of $4.3 million and awarded punitive damages of $5 million. What are compensatory damages? What are punitive damages?
Compensatory damages are designed to compensate the plaintiff for actual damages sustained by the plaintiff due to the wrongful action(s) of the defendant. Compensatory damages include (but are not limited to) lost wages, medical expenses, and emotional pain and suffering. Punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant for clearly egregious behavior. They are also designed to deter future “bad acts” by the defendant or anyone else.
- As indicated in the article, the size of the award may be capped due to a Tennessee law on civil damages. Please review the two “Teaching Tips” in this newsletter and provide your opinion regarding whether a cap on civil damages (such as the Tennessee law) is reasonable.
This is an opinion question, so student responses may vary. As indicated in the Teaching Tips in this newsletter, Tennessee’s law prohibits plaintiffs from recovering greater than $750,000 for “non-economic damages” such as emotional pain and suffering.
In your author’s opinion, “tort reform” laws such as Tennessee’s law offers a “cookie-cutter” approach to the award of non-economic damages. By this law, Tennessee is essentially implying that no lawsuit deserves an award of greater than $750,000 in non-economic damages. Your author supports the traditional system regarding damage awards, with initial discretion given to the jury in terms of their verdict, and review discretion given to the trial court judge and appellate court system.