Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tort reform

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Susan Saladoff
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Incidentally, if you want the straight dope about that McDonalds hot coffee "frivolous lawsuit," check this out. Here's an excerpt:
Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was in the passenger seat of her grandson's car when she was severely burned by McDonalds coffee in February 1992. Liebeck, 79 at the time, ordered coffee that was served in a Styrofoam cup at the drive-through window of a local McDonalds.

After receiving the order, the grandson pulled his car forward and stopped momentarily so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. (Critics of civil justice, who have pounced on this case, often charge that Liebeck was driving the car or that the vehicle was in motion when she spilled the coffee; neither is true.) Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup. As she removed the lid, the entire contents of the cup spilled into her lap.

The sweatpants Liebeck was wearing absorbed the coffee and held it next to her skin. A vascular surgeon determined that Liebeck suffered full thickness burns (or third-degree burns) over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting. Liebeck, who also underwent debridement treatments, sought to settle her claim for $20,000, but McDonalds refused.

During discovery, McDonalds produced documents showing more than 700 claims by people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some claims involved third-degree burns substantially similar to Liebecks. This history documented McDonalds' knowledge about the extent and nature of this hazard.

It sounds crazy to sue a restaurant because their coffee is hot, doesn't it? But who expects eight days of hospitalization and skin grafts from spilling coffee on yourself? Yes, coffee is hot, but this hot?

You've probably spilled coffee on yourself, haven't you? I certainly have. But I didn't get third degree burns from it. I wouldn't expect to get third degree burns. And McDonalds was selling this stuff through their drive-through window! Would anyone expect life-threatening danger from it? (Make no mistake, third-degree burns over 6% of your body is serious, especially for a 79-year-old.)

Corporations have a financial interest in tort "reform." And there are frivolous lawsuits, of course, but very few of them get very far in our court system. Note that most of them you see in emails are complete lies. (Check out this from, for example.)

This sums it up pretty well, I think (it's also from that article at Snopes):
When we hear such stories, it's hard not to be rabidly in favor of tort reform — these kinds of cases make it appear that the idiots have taken over the asylum and only the rapid institution of some rules is going to bring things back into a semblance of sanity. Yet this solution is not all skittles and beer; many see such changes as potentially denying those in need of legal remedy their day in court and refusing them their right to be heard. The cap on jury awards is also viewed by some as unfair to the seriously injured, who may well require a large sum to afford the cost of living with whatever disability someone else's negligence or recklessness left them with. Capped awards are also scant deterrent to large corporations who could easily afford the judgments against them and therefore have little reason to mend their ways. Big Business is poised to benefit under tort reform in that it will no longer need to fear the courts. ...

It's a complicated issue, one not made any easier to make sense of by lists of fake cases of horrendous miscarriages of justice. One has to wonder why someone is so busy trying to stir up outrage and who or what that outrage would ultimately benefit.

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