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Who Really Gets Burned With Tort Reform?

It’s not about protecting ordinary people. It’s about the profits of the people and corporations who cause injuries.

Hot Coffee PosterA long-running propaganda campaign has convinced a large segment of the U.S. population that “tort reform”—limiting damage awards, making it harder to sue, and limiting access to courts—is good for all of us.

It’s been a simple, two-part attack: Threaten access to health care (“Doctors are quitting, because of the cost of malpractice lawsuits”) and play on moral outrage (“Undeserving people get millions through frivolous lawsuits”).

We’ve heard that we have to clamp down on the runaway results produced by ambulance-chasing attorneys.

The movie Hot Coffee looks at the reality.
The title refers to the infamous Stella Liebeck case. You know the one: A lady spills McDonald’s coffee in her lap, then cashes in for millions. Crazy, right?

Once you’ve watched the movie, you may not think so. Her burns were third-degree and required skin grafts. McDonald’s had faced 700 claims for similar burns before Liebeck’s claim. All she originally asked for was the cost of medical treatment. And the jury’s award of $2.7 million? The judge reduced it to $480,000, even though he found the company’s behavior willful and reckless.

The movie also reveals the real-world effects of tort reform.

A family in Nebraska discovers that caps on damages mean that their son, brain-damaged at birth, will not have his care paid for by the person who caused the injury (or her insurer). Instead, once they’ve run through the amount provided under the state’s cap on damages and through the family’s own resources, his care will be provided by taxpayers.

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A young woman finds that she can’t sue her employer—Halliburton—even after she was raped when the company failed to provide her with safe housing while she worked in Iraq. The company forced her to sign a mandatory arbitration clause—another variety of tort reform—when she was hired. And the company got to pick the arbitrator who would hear her claim. Her case was so shocking that it led to a federal law restoring the right to sue for her and others like her.

The line is that there’s an epidemic of frivolous lawsuits. If that’s the case, then why are we still talking about Stella Liebeck 20 years later? If we’re living in a world of foolish tort claims, why can’t they come up with a case—many cases—every year?

The truth is, tort reform isn’t about protecting ordinary people. It’s about protecting the profits of the people and corporations who cause injuries—and saving their insurers some money, to boot.


Doug PibelDoug Pibel wrote this article for 9 Strategies to End Corporate Rule, the Spring 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. Doug is managing editor of YES!

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