Hot Coffee and Tort “Reform”
A few weeks ago, I was preparing jury voir dire questions for a short trial. Some of the questions that I prepared involved various issues of tort “reform” and other items currently in the media that dealt with negative events involving personal injury lawyers. One area that always has to be covered is the McDonald’s hot coffee case, because most potential jurors have been indoctrinated to believe that this case sets the standard for a frivolous lawsuit.
Recently, I viewed the HBO special- “Hot Coffee”. This special starts off by reviewing the details of the McDonald’s case. If you have the impression that this was as frivolous suit, you should watch this one and one-half hour special. Stella Liebeck’s legs were scalded by coffee that was about the temperature of the water in a car radiator (180-190 degrees). This temperature is capable of causing third degree burns requiring skin grafting. Ms. Liebeck wasn’t the only one that was injured by this McDonald’s coffee. There were over 700 burn cases reported, because their holding temperature for coffee was so high.
The unanimous jury found Ms. Liebeck to be 20% at fault and McDonald’s 80% at fault for the burns she sustained to her legs from the hot coffee. The jury awarded Ms Liebeck $160,000.00 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. The purpose of punitive damages is to change behavior brought about by egregious conduct. The presiding judge reduced the total punitive damage award to $480,000.00.
The media picked up on the hot coffee case and made it the flashpoint for tort “reform”, which is an attempt to block civil lawsuits and the public’s right to get into court. The media never mentions that there are legal procedures in place that block any frivolous case from ever getting to trial. Nor do they attempt to provide the actual facts of the case.
After this case, big business, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, asbestos companies, oil companies, tobacco companies, health insurance companies and companies that insure doctors, tried to pass federal tort “reform” legislation. They banded together under an organization known as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has its headquarters in Washington, DC. This appears to be an agency of our federal government. It is not. Obviously, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has strong financial backing. Carl Love and George Bush Jr. became the proponents of tort “reform.” They advocated caps on compensatory, special, and punitive damages. They preached that frivolous malpractice suits were going to put our doctors out of business.
Bill Clinton vetoed federal tort “reform” legislation.
One of the purposes of tort law is to promote safety. In order to do that, you have to hold entities that sell products and services accountable. If we don’t, then those injured by the negligence of these companies must look to state programs such as Medicaid to pay for support and medical care necessitated by their injuries.
Once the Chamber of Commerce was blocked from passing national tort “reform”, they centered their campaign on providing financial support to elect candidates for the state courts that would be pro business and pro tort “reform.” As a result of this state by state campaign, judges were put into place who were in favor of placing caps on punitive damages as well as caps on non-economic damages for pain and suffering, and even limitations on the recovery of medical expenses paid by insurance (Collateral source rule).
All of this was accomplished by taking snippets of information from cases where people were injured and using these negative aspects of these cases to make them look bad in the eyes of the public. All cases have some negative aspects. In our state of Nevada the aftermath of this tort “reform” campaign resulted in a $250,000.00 cap on non-economic damages on medical malpractice cases, a one-year statute of limitations, and restrictions on recovery of damages for medical bills that were paid by insurance, obviating the collateral source rule on med-mal cases. Some states have adopted caps on punitive damage, and other states have caps on the non-economic and/or entire amount of damages that a jury can award.
The bottom line is that our civil justice system needs tort law to maintain a civilized society and to pass the cost of damages caused by profitable injury producing products back to the manufacturers and companies that cause injuries to our friends and family. This promotes safety in our society and protects the public from dangerous services and products. The criminal justice system, to a certain extent, makes for a more civilized society, but it can’t control non-criminal conduct. That’s where the civil justice system picks up. Without access to the courts on tort cases, the public would be picking up the tab for damages caused by entities that should be held accountable for their actions.