When Robert Kearns was driving his Ford Galaxie in the rain one day, he grew frustrated with the constant moving of the wiper blades as it irritated his eyes. So he invented – and went on to patent – an electronically powered intermittent windscreen wiper, and showed it to Ford in 1963. The car manufacturer liked the idea, and wanted to introduce it into its next year's models, but later told Kearns that it was abandoning the plans. However, in 1969, Ford introduced the feature, without paying Kearns.
In 1978, Kearns took the automaker to court, claiming that it had violated the patent he held on the windscreen wiper technology. The jury agreed, deciding that Kearns was entitled to seek royalties for the sale of every car that featured his invention. Ford was ordered to pay him $6.3 million (£4.8m), which a judge later cut to $5.2 million (£4m). Following various appeals, in 2008 the car manufacturer eventually paid Kearns $10.2 million (£7.8m) to settle the case, bringing the lengthy legal battle to an end. And in a separate lawsuit on the same issue, Chrysler was ordered to pay the inventor $18.7 million (£14.3m) too.
In 1992, Hoover launched one of the most ill thought-out marketing campaigns in history. Seeking to shift a backlog of vacuum cleaners gathering dust (rather than collecting it) in its warehouses, it announced to the British public that they could win two free return flights to America when they spent just £100 on a vacuum cleaner. Unsurprisingly, the company was inundated with interest, and simply couldn’t keep the deal as it was extremely unprofitable. This led to lots of disgruntled customers, and a media firestorm.
Stella Liebeck’s 1994 lawsuit against McDonald's has become the stuff of urban legend, and divided opinion in the US at the time. The 79-year-old from Albuquerque, New Mexico bought a cup of coffee from a McDonald's drive-through in 1992, but her car didn’t have cup holders. She parked up so that she could add cream and sugar to her coffee, but accidentally knocked over the cup, spilling it into her lap. She suffered third-degree burns on her thighs, buttocks and groin and had to undergo extensive skin grafts.
Liebeck initially sought to settle with McDonald's for $20,000 (£15,400) to cover her medical expenses, but when it offered her a measly $800 (£600), she went to court. Her attorneys argued that at 180-190°F (82-88°C), the coffee was defective because it was too hot and was likely to cause injury. The court found in her favour, and the judge awarded her $2.9 million (£2.2m). This was later reduced to $640,000 (£492k) in compensation and punitive damages. Both parties appealed, and later settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
Under European law, passengers whose flights are cancelled or substantially delayed are entitled to compensation of at least €250 ($295/£225). When Wallentin-Hermann approached Alitalia to claim this, it refused to pay out, claiming the defect was “extraordinary circumstances.” Rather than give up, Wallentin-Hermann took the case all the way to the European Court of Justice, which ruled in her favour and said that a technical problem on an aircraft does not count as “extraordinary”.
When police officer Warren Nyerges retired in 2009, he and his wife Maureen Collier bought a house in the Golden Gates Estate in Naples, Florida. They paid for the $165,000 (£126,700) property in cash, and never took out a mortgage. So when the Bank of America began foreclosure proceedings against them in February 2010 it came as a bit of a shock as the couple had paid for their home outright.
They hired an attorney to fight the case in court. It was eventually dropped by the bank, but not before the couple had run up $2,534 (£1,945) in legal fees, which the bank never paid. They wanted to get their own back, so took matters into their own hands. Their attorney went to their local branch of Bank of America, accompanied by officials from the Naples sheriff's office, and started to remove cash and other goods from the the premises. One hour later, the couple found that a cheque for $5,772.88 (£4,430) had been paid into their account.
When LA resident Trish Wiener bought products from Dannon’s (known as Danone in Europe) Activia and DanActive yoghurt brands, which claimed to be clinically proven to help regulate digestion and boost immunity, she was disappointed to find no positive effect. So she filed a lawsuit against the company. Dannon had started marketing Activia and its “bifidus regularis” bacteria in early 2006. Yet Wiener’s lawsuit claimed Dannon’s marketing department invented the words “immunitas” and “regularis” and used them because “these names sound scientific.”
Both yoghurts sell at a 30% premium over other brands because of their claimed nutritional benefits, which meant Wiener was able to claim for an “economic injury” because she spent more money than she would have based on the company’s claims. The legal battle lasted two years, culminating in the judge’s decision that Dannon would have to pay yoghurt purchasers up to $45 million (£35m) in damages, in a class action settlement reached in federal court. Dannon was also required to remove the word “immunity” from its labels.
Rice Krispies might be a beloved breakfast cereal, but when a 2009 ad campaign for the cereal claimed it could boost children's immunity Oregon's attorney general, as well as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and a number of private individuals, took issue with the claim, saying it wasn't backed up by scientific evidence. These lawsuits became one large class action lawsuit which wound up in the California federal court.
Plaintiffs argued that Rice Krispies did not have evidence to support its claims, and that Kellogg's had failed to disclose any information which indicated health or immunity benefits. In 2011, Kellogg's settled for $5 million (£3.9m), of which $2.5 million (£1.9m) would be given to people who purchased its products, who could claim for between $5 to $15 (£3.90-£11.70) if they submitted forms for the price of cereal they purchased. Meanwhile the remaining $2.5 million (£1.9m) would be given to charities in the form of donated Kellogg's products. The company also removed immunity claims from its packaging in 2010.
It may have only been a difference of two cents but Bach decided to file a civil lawsuit against the supermarket giant, the fifth that she had filed against the Delmont store for misrepresenting prices on the shelves. During the case, Walmart’s lawyers claimed that she had only purchased the items so she could file yet another charge against the store. But the court sided with her, and she was awarded $100 (£77) in damages and about $80 (£61) in court costs.
When the graphics chip on Seattle Rex’s MacBook Pro stopped working in late 2011, he took it to the Genius Bar at his local Apple store to have it repaired. When he explained the problem, he was informed that his AppleCare warranty had expired three months earlier, meaning he would have to pay the full cost of the repairs, which could have been up to $600 (£460). Rex told Apple that he had paid $4,500 (£3,460) for the laptop, and the fact that it had failed in three years and three months made it defective.
He made several complaints to senior Apple executives to no avail, so eventually Rex filed a lawsuit against the company in the small claims court. During the case, Apple’s lawyers tried to claim that because Rex had bought a made-to-order laptop with a faster processor, it wasn’t covered by the company’s repair programme. However, the judge found in Rex’s favour and awarded him an undisclosed sum to cover the cost of a new laptop and other expenses.
Cynthia Robinson received one of the largest individual settlements in history when she took on tobacco firm R J Reynolds. She filed the case in 2008 after her husband, Michael Johnson Sr, died of lung cancer in 1996 after smoking for more than 20 years. According to his widow, the company had deliberately concealed the true extent of the health hazards that came from smoking its cigarettes. Johnson Sr was just 36 when he died, but he had begun smoking aged 13.
Robinson first brought the case against R J Reynolds in 2008, but it wasn’t concluded until 2014. In court, she said the cigarette manufacturer had conspired to cover up the number of chemicals in its products, and how addictive they really were. The court was persuaded by her argument and handed R J Reynolds a punitive judgement of $23.6 billion (£18.1bn). It was also ordered to pay Robinson $17 million (£13m) in compensatory damages. The company tried to appeal the case in 2017, but its case was rejected.
When Benjamin Careathers saw a Red Bull advert promising that the energy drink would give him wings, he decided to put the claim to the test. After consuming the fizzy drink for ten years and remaining firmly wingless, the American took Red Bull to court for false advertising. Careathers claimed that the manufacturers had deliberately misled purchasers, who bought the drink in the hope that it would give them a competitive edge.
The case never made it to court, as Red Bull was concerned about the bad publicity that it might bring. Instead, it settled for $6.5 million (£5m) with Careathers and allocated a further $6.5 million (£5m) to a fund to which customers who had bought Red Bull between 1 January 2002 and 3 October 2014 could apply for a refund if they also felt they had been misled. The total compensation was supposed to work about to about $10 (£7.70) per person that had drunk Red Bull since 2002.
When Henry Walker visited his local Phenix City branch of Walmart in June 2015, he wasn’t expecting to leave on a stretcher. The Army veteran was reaching for a watermelon in a container, but tripped and fell when his foot got stuck in a wooden pallet that had been left on the floor. He suffered several injuries, including a broken hip.
Walker sued Walmart on two claims, one of negligence, the other on wantonness, meaning that he alleged that the store should have known that the pallet might cause an injury. During the trial, the jury viewed security footage that showed several other people catching their feet on the pallet. It found in Walker’s favour on both counts, and agreed to pay him $2.5 million (£1.9m) in compensatory damages and $5 million (£3.8m) in punitive damages.
Durkin, 44, took his case to the Aberdeen Sheriff Court, which found in his favour and awarded him £116,000 ($151,000) in damages. The judgement was later overturned by the Court of Session in Edinburgh and the damages taken away from Durkin. Finally, at a Supreme Court appeal in 2014, he was awarded £8,000 ($10,400) in damages, a much lower figure than in the previous case but a victory nonetheless. Durkin described the verdict as “a great victory for all consumers” in an interview with the BBC.
Eva Echeverria had used Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder for more than 50 years, beginning in the 1950s. In 2007, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and attributed this to her use of the talcum product. According to court documents filed in 2017, she called talcum powder “dangerous and defective” and said Johnson & Johnson had failed to adequately inform purchasers about the product’s potential cancer risk.
A 2016 study found that using talcum powder on the genital region could increase the risk of ovarian cancer by up to 33%, but other studies have found no evidence of a link. Nevertheless, when Echeverria’s case came to court, the jury found in her favour, awarding her $68 million (£52m) in compensation and $340 million (£264m) in punitive damages. She is not the first woman to have taken Johnson & Johnson to court over the issue; three other lawsuits returned similar verdicts in 2016.
He took Scienceworks to court in April that year, alleging that the museum had failed to prevent the risk of injury, and that the track was poorly lit and should not have led to a wall. The case for negligence was supposed to be heard by a jury in July 2017, but Smith’s lawyers filed a claim for special damages totalling $1 million (£770,000) just before, to account for medical expenses and future loss of earnings. Smith settled for an undisclosed damages fee.
Jeanette Ortiz was once one of Chipotle’s most loyal staff members. The 42-year-old had worked at the Mexican food chain’s Fresno, California branch for 14 years, before she was dismissed in 2015 for allegedly stealing $636 (£490) in cash from a safe. Her bosses claimed that the theft had been recorded on video, but when she asked to see the tape they claimed it had been destroyed. So she sued Chipotle for wrongful dismissal.
In court, Ortiz’s lawyers claimed that the allegation was ridiculous, because she was making $70,000 (£53,800) a year as a general manager, and was being considered for a promotion that would have earned her an extra $30,000 (£23,000) annually, so she had no need to steal a few hundred dollars. The jury found in her favour and Chipotle was ordered to pay Ortiz $7.9 million (£6.1m) for loss of past and future wages and emotional distress, plus an additional undisclosed sum of punitive damages.
In 2015, Spotify was hit by two lawsuits from disgruntled artists. One came from David Lowery (pictured, right), frontman of the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, while the other came from Melissa Ferrick, an American singer-songwriter. Both artists, whose suits were initially separate but later combined, claimed that the streaming service had not properly fulfilled payment per compulsory licenses of their tracks. The combined class action lawsuits ended up representing a collective of musicians.
Victoria Smith, a 33-year-old British woman, had suffered for some years from agoraphobia and fibromyalgia, which left her in constant pain. In early 2018, the UK government's Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) wrote to her to tell her that she had to be reassessed for her Personal Independence Payments (PIP), a disability benefit that was intended to help with the costs associated with her condition. In March 2018, she was evaluated in her home by a representative from benefits assessment firm Capita.
The company told her that she was no longer eligible for the benefit, a conclusion Smith’s mother described as a “pack of lies”. She appealed to the DWP, but this was rejected in June. The following month, Smith died of a brain haemorrhage, but her family continued to fight her case, and in February 2019 they were awarded £10,000 ($13,000) in damages. Smith’s mother said she continued the court battle to “get some justice for my daughter”.
Businessman Pat McDonagh is the owner of the largest Irish fast food chain in Ireland, Supermac’s. Despite this, it’s tiny compared to the global giant that is McDonald’s, with 36,000 restaurants worldwide and a $165 billion (£128bn) market cap. So when McDonald’s filed a lawsuit against Supermac’s back in 2015, claiming that the chain's name and some menu items with the name “mac” in them infringed on its Big Mac trademark, things didn’t look good for the small-fry Irish business.
Yet in 2017 Supermac’s hit back, saying that protections around the 'Big Mac' trademark should be withdrawn. In January 2019, the European Union Intellectual Property Office made a judgement that McDonald’s had not sufficiently proved genuine use of the “Mac” trademark, either as a burger or restaurant name. In a classic case of “use it or lose it”, this means McDonald’s has to relinquish its “Big Mac” trademark in Europe. And this ruling would allow Supermac’s to expand into the UK and Europe, making it a big win for a small business.