The Trial Lawyer Summer 2018 - Page 65

The actual facts bear reciting :
1 . Stella Liebeck suffered third-degree burns to her inner thighs , genitalia and groin and was hospitalized for eight days requiring numerous skin grafts . 2 . Liebeck was a passenger in the vehicle being driven by her grandson . 3 . Liebeck ’ s grandson pulled over and stopped his vehicle so Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee . 4 . The Ford Probe of Liebeck ’ s grandson had no cup holders , so Liebeck placed the cup between her legs . 5 . While trying to get the lid off , the coffee spilled on her sweatpants , immediately soaking through to her skin . 6 . Liebeck went into shock and her grandson rushed her to the emergency room . 7 . Prior to this , McDonald ’ s received more than 700 complaints of serious burns caused by their coffee being served too hot . 8 . McDonald ’ s policy was to serve coffee at a temperature between 195 and 200 degrees , despite knowing that temperature would cause third-degree burns in seven seconds or less . 9 . Liebeck tried to settle the matter with McDonald ’ s before hiring a lawyer for merely her medical expenses of less than $ 20,000 , an offer vehemently rejected . 10 . An independent mediator recommended McDonald ’ s settle the case for $ 225,000 , which McDonald ’ s rejected . 11 . Liebeck required two more years of additional medical treatment which greatly increased her medical expenses . 12 . The jury awarded Liebeck $ 200,000 for her compensatory damages , but found her 20 percent comparatively negligent , thus reducing the award to $ 160,000 . 13 . The jury assessed punitive damages against McDonald ’ s of $ 2.7 million , which was equal to roughly two days of McDonald ’ s coffee sales profits . However , the trial judge reduced this to $ 480,000 , but the judge found that assessing punitive damages against McDonald ’ s was appropriate to punish and deter the company for its wanton conduct and to send a clear message to McDonald ’ s that corrective measures were needed . 14 . McDonald ’ s appealed and the case settled for an undisclosed amount widely reported to be between $ 400,000 and $ 600,000 .
When the true facts of the case are reported , most people recognize that this case was neither frivolous , nor was the verdict excessive .
The playbook for tort reform was quite simple . Major domestic and foreign corporations donate vast sums of money to the U . S . Chamber of Commerce and other lobbying groups , and Karl Rove and others direct that money into to the campaign coffers of politicians wiling to back tort reform . However , in 1995 President Bill Clinton vetoed a tort reform bill that favored big business , but would have devastated the American consumer and eroded our 7 th Amendment rights . Rove and his cronies responded by taking tort reform to state legislatures . The chamber and big business began funding state political races and running ads under the names of associations disguised to look like groups of “ concerned ” citizens . The ads hammered into the American psyche the lie that frivolous lawsuits were ruining our economy and our country , using the distorted truth about the McDonald ’ s hot coffee case and other cases they created out of thin air .
Numerous states passed tort reform bills stripping the public of its 7 th Amendment rights . When state supreme courts started finding many of these tort reform bills unconstitutional because they infringed upon a citizen ’ s right to trial by jury , Rove and company began a new strategy of targeting state supreme court judges in their re-election campaigns who had upheld the 7 th Amendment liberty , replacing them with judges who were willing to turn a blind eye to the unconstitutional tort reform legislation passed by the state .
The fact is , Americans do not have a frivolous lawsuit problem . The Rand Institute for Civil Justice , recognized as one of the most independent and respected think tanks in the country , found that only 10 percent of people injured by the actions of others seek compensation and only two percent of them file lawsuits . Since 1991 , tort cases have made up only five percent of all civil cases filed . Additional reports have proved that while our population has grown , personal injury lawsuits have decreased by more than 25 percent between 1999 and 2008 alone , and they represent only 1.3 percent of all civil dispositions . Study after study show that frivolous lawsuits are rare , and nearly non-existent . Even Victor Schwartz , a historically huge proponent of tort reform , admitted : “ There is no question that it is very rare that frivolous suits are brought against doctors . They are too expensive to bring .”
Using a campaign of deception , tort-reform advocates have turned injured victims into greedy liars and their lawyers into unscrupulous , opportunistic parasites . What big business and the insurance industry don ’ t tell you is that multimillion-dollar verdicts are rare . The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the median plaintiff verdict is well under $ 50,000 , and only five percent of plaintiff verdicts are a million dollars or more .
Healthcare malpractice settlements and verdicts make up only 0.3 percent of national healthcare costs . The National Association of Insurance Commissioners agrees that the total amount of money spent annually defending medical malpractice claims and compensating victims is $ 7.1 billion . What is actually driving healthcare costs to rise is preventable medical errors , which account for an additional annual cost of $ 29 billion of the $ 2.2 trillion of healthcare spending .
Over the past two decades , the number of licensed physicians has significantly increased and is at an all-time high . The number of practicing physicians per number of people in our country has never been higher . From 1990 to 2010 ,
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