Don’t be fooled by Chamber of Commerce Propaganda and the Big Lie of “Tort Reform”

The truth behind the McDonald’s coffee verdict

Many Americans have a wrong perception of America’s civil justice system. They think that there are too many frivolous lawsuits. The print ads, television ads, and other forms of communication channels over the past decade or two have been played so many times that it has greatly altered the perception of the general public towards lawsuits. Americans have been made to believe that most of the lawsuits filed against the big corporations are frivolous, and that we need to have tort reform in place in every state in the United States.

What actually is tort reform? Most Americans who support the concept of “tort reform” do so without fully understanding that they are actually surrendering their legal rights in the event that they become a victim of an intentional wrongdoing or negligence from one of the big corporations. Tort reform, in almost all instances, limits an individual’s ability to go to court to attempt to seek justice for a wrong that has been committed against them. So, is tort reform good for individuals? Certainly not! It means individuals will have far fewer rights and the big corporations get to make more money by avoiding being held accountable for negligence in the safety and wellbeing of American citizens.

Stella Liebeck vs. McDonald’s:

It is one of the most ridiculed and most misunderstood lawsuits in American history. A 79 year-old woman who worked full-time from Albuquerque, New Mexico, was misrepresented by the media. They portrayed it as simply an old lady who spilled some warm McDonald’s coffee on herself while driving ended up suing the company and suckered a jury into giving her millions of dollars, claiming the coffee was too hot. This was the general public perception that was set by the media. Stella Liebeck became a joke. The jury function in civil trials became a joke.

Stella Liebeck vs McDonald's
Stella Liebeck vs McDonald’s

In the movie Hot Coffee, when the general public were shown actual pictures of Ms. Liebeck’s injuries, and they were told the other side of the story—the real story—their perception on this case always changed, and most often their perception changed dramatically. The injuries Ms. Liebeck sustained were extraordinarily severe and the extent of her injuries has very rarely been accurately portrayed by the media. She suffered burns over 16% of her body and 6% of them were 3rd degree burn which she needed skin grafts to repair.

Stella Liebeck was not driving. She was in a parked car when the coffee spill occurred. McDonald’s offered an insulting $800 “nuisance value” to her which would not even begin to cover her medical bills. Ms. Liebeck was represented by Ken Wagner from Albuquerque who took her case. The trial revealed that McDonald’s had over 700 previous complaints about burns from hot beverages. McDonald’s knew they had a problem and yet they ignored it, content to simply let its customers keep getting burned. It was the jury who decided to award Liebeck $2.9 million in punitive damages. Then, later on, the judge reduced the punitive damages award from $2.9 million to $480,000, but did state, on the record, that McDonald’s had engaged in “willful, wanton, and reckless” behavior.

The media hyped this story to help in efforts to set a negative perception in the American public that lawsuits are simply another avenue to earn easy money. Then, seizing upon this story, the tort reform crowd came in to the picture, and, it was correlated in the minds of American people that tort reform is desperately needed.

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Of course, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is not a part of any government. It is a membership organization of businesses and is the nation’s largest lobbying group for corporations. The Chamber doesn’t disclose who its funders are, but the Board of Directors includes executives from companies such as Pfizer, WellPoint Inc., ConocoPhillips, Lockheed Martin, Dow Chemicals, and Altria.

Tort reform, in many states, has now resulted in caps on damages and mandatory arbitration that takes an individual’s rights away. Caps on damages help to disable the right of the jury—one of the oldest rights Americans have—to award the amount of money to help make victims whole. Mandatory arbitration further erodes the rights of individuals and helps to keep down instances of juries making corporations responsible. The contracts we have when we buy phones or the credit card that we use are some of the minor cases where we may have been held a victim of arbitration, without even us knowing about it. Tort reform and arbitration clauses both combine to greatly diminish our long-held and cherished rights to legally represent ourselves in court and to get the justice that we all deserve.

We need tort respect not tort reform. The civil jury system is one of the things that makes (used to make?) our country so great. It helps to make all products safer, including the toys our children use, the vehicles we all drive and ride in, and many other products.

October 28th 2013, Updated: November 4th 2013
Sources:  The New York Times, Gawker, The Tracy Firm