Many people will remember a very famous lawsuit against McDonald’s restaurants in 1994. That case, known as Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, involved 79-year-old Stella Liebeck, who sued McDonald’s after spilling scalding (190 degree F/88 degree C) coffee into her lap, causing severe 3rd degree burns to her inner thighs and genital area. She required major reconstructive surgery.
Liebeck won that medical tort lawsuit, which in common-law terms is defined as lawsuit brought by someone who has been wronged in some way by another person or entity. The lawsuit is heard in civil court in the USA, because the seventh amendment to the US constitution guarantees every citizen a common law (a.k.a, civil law) trial by jury. The jury is thus trusted to deliberate a fair verdict. If the jury finds the defendant in a civil case guilty, the jury is also trusted to render a fair award for the plaintiff, based upon the facts of the case.
In Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, the jury awarded Liebeck $2.86 million dollars in both tangible and punitive damages. That amount was based upon only 2 days worth of McDonald’s revenues from their coffee sales. The judge subsequently reduced the award to $640,000. Both parties appealed, but then settled for an undisclosed amount before the appeal was decided.
At about the same time in Texas, then-governor George W. Bush and his GOP cronies passed tort reform in Texas, which severely capped tort monetary awards. The GOP state legislators were heavily supported and lobbied by “Corporate America”‘s best friend, the US Chamber of Commerce.
The US Chamber of Commerce’s sole reason for existence is to make life for big business as unregulated, easy, tax-free and protected as possible. It’s membership is primarily made up of big corporations. One of its long-standing goals has been to reduce or eliminate business’s financial liability in civil court (tort reform) by lobbying state legislators to pass laws that severely cap a jury’s ability to reward money. They lobby state legislatures to pass “one size fits all” maximum awards in civil lawsuits against companies and service providers. This essentially steals away a jury’s ability to determine an appropriate monetary award.
Their motto is “Stop Frivolous Lawsuits!!”, as if a jury couldn’t figure it out for themselves. Yet, these same conservatives allow juries to vote for death penalties in criminal court.
The ultimate purpose of this strategy is to protect business against being held accountable for negligence, incompetence, and/or malfeasance.
The harm tort reform causes an impacted individual is astronomical. An example is a case where medical incompetence caused severe brain damage in an baby boy just before birth. As the baby grew, it became clear that he would require life-long care because he could care for himself. A jury found the doctor involved guilty and awarded $6 million, which was calculated to be necessary for the boy’s life-long care. But because of tort reform in Oklahoma, the award was limited to $350,000.
Guess who will have to take care of this severely brain-damaged boy when his parents are gone? The taxpayers!!!!!!
So much for the GOP’s idea of reducing Medicaid.
The ultra-conservatives in the USA argue that tort reform reduces medical malpractice premiums and thus lowers everyone’s medical expenses. They used this argument during last year’s health care reform debates. But a review of medical malpractice insurance premium levels both before and after Texas passed tort reform showed that premiums did not go down at all, but in fact remained the same before and after. When asked, the insurance companies had no explanation.
The dirty and greedy truth is that Tort reform is about only one thing: protecting big business’s ability to make more money by hook and crook without accountability – over and over and over.
In fact, big business has even found other ways around civil lawsuits. Take a close look at the documentation that comes with your credit card, for instance. You’ll find (in the teenie-weenie print) that even if you have a serious problem, you can’t suit the company…no matter what. Instead, you must submit to arbitration with an arbitrator who knows who is going to pay him or her (the company, of course). And arbitration awards are final….no appeal is possible.
In a survey of these arbitrations, it was found that consumers won these perhaps 10% of the time, while the companies won 90% of the time. Perhaps even worst part, most people didn’t even know that their use of their credit card constituted a waiver of their US constitutional 7th amendment rights!
For the ideologically motivated and horribly misinformed conservatives who make up the bulk of the US republican party, totally FREE ENTERPRISE (i.e., free of financial regulations, safety requirements, child labor laws, environmental responsibility, financial liability and legal accountability….not to mention their fair share of taxation) is good for everyone.
Yeah. And so is radioactivity.
P.S. Watch the documentary “Hot Coffee“, presently on HBO if you possibly can. It will astound and inform you.