By: Tony Piccuta
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Tort Reform and the Big Corporations and Greedy Industries that Started It
What do you think of when you hear the phrase “tort reform?” Perhaps you have never heard of it. For those of you who have, you probably think of something that was started to combat frivolous lawsuits. What is a frivolous lawsuit anyway? What is a tort?
Google offers the following definition for the word tort: “a wrongful act or infringement of a right (other than under contract) leading to civil liability.” Attorneys commonly think of torts as any act where someone was wronged or harmed by another. Typically, all wrongful acts that give rise to a personal injury claim are a type of tort.
According to Wikipedia, tort reform “refers to proposed changes in the civil justice system that aim to reduce the ability of victims to bring tort litigation or to reduce damages they can receive.” Think about what that really means and who that helps and hurts. Tort reform seeks to prevent victims from bringing personal injury lawsuits and seeks to reduce the amount of money victims may recover for their injuries. These victims are not big corporations or multi-national companies. These victims are the average individual on the street. They are you, your family members, your friends and your loved ones. Tort reform seeks to stop you and the people you love from having your day in court and seeks to limit the amount you can recover if you are harmed by the wrongdoing of another.
The American justice system is unique in that it allows an individual to go to court and seek redress for his or her injury. Americans have the fundamental right to a jury. This is a long standing principle of American jurisprudence. In fact, having a trial by jury, if you are harmed, is a constitutional right. The Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution sets forth: “In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right to trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall otherwise be reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of common law.”
The Seventh Amendment was written in 1789 and is part of the Bill of Rights (first ten Amendments). Although it is difficult to determine what the value of $20 in 1789 is worth today, according to United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics-CPI Inflation Calculator—$20 in 1913 is worth $505.85 in 2018. (1913 is the furthest back the calculator allows).
The Seventh Amendment applies to federal courts. However, most states have adopted this fundamental right to a jury to resolve civil disputes including personal injury claims. This includes Arizona which guarantees the right to a trial by jury under Article 2, Section 23 of the State Constitution. Yes, it is both your federal and state right to have a jury hear your case and award you what is fair. Tort reform seeks to take that away.
In Arizona, an individual may file a lawsuit in Justice Court and recover up to $10,000 or in the Small Claims Division and recover up to $3,500. However, in these venues an individual does not have the right to a jury. Lawsuits involving disputes for amounts over $10,000 must be filed in Superior Court where individuals have the right to a jury. Scottsdale Injury Lawyers regularly file its personal injury lawsuits in Maricopa County Superior Court or the United States District Court of Arizona where its clients have the right to a jury.
The phrase “frivolous lawsuit” goes hand in hand with “tort reform.” Both phrases were introduced by big business trying to insulate itself from accountability. What do you think of when you think of a frivolous lawsuit? Do you think of personal injury attorneys filing ridiculous lawsuits trying to recover money wherever they can? Do you think of the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee spill case?
If you have never heard about the McDonald’s hot coffee spill lawsuit, it basically involved a woman who spilled coffee on her lap after receiving it in a drive-thru at McDonald’s. She then sued for her injuries. A jury awarded her millions of dollars. This case became the posterchild for frivolous lawsuits and tort reform. Of course, the average person, including you, knows nothing about the case or what led to the jury’s verdict. You probably know about as much as what was written above.
The case is Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants and was filed in New Mexico. Here are some things you likely did not know. The woman who suffered the injury was elderly—exactly 79 years old at the time. She ultimately settled for $640,000, not the 2.68 Million the jury initially awarded. The majority of the 2.68 Million dollar award was to punish McDonald’s. Evidence showed that McDonald’s knew that how it served coffee was dangerous. Documents proved that in a ten year span, the company had received more than 700 reports of people burned by its coffee to varying degrees and had paid more than $500,000 to settle those various claims.
The coffee McDonald’s was serving was not at a normal temperature. It was scalding hot, between 180-190 degrees. It was essentially undrinkable. When the coffee was spilled on Ms. Liebeck’s lap, it soaked into her cotton sweat pants causing it to be held on her skin. Ms. Liebeck was rushed to the hospital where she was diagnosed with third degree burns on her thighs, groin and buttocks. She had third degree burns on six percent of her body and lesser burns over sixteen percent. She was hospitalized for eight days. She underwent skin graft procedures. While hospitalized, she dropped 20 pounds which reduced her weight to 83 pounds and she nearly died. She required in-home assistance and care for three weeks following her discharge from the hospital. She was permanently disfigured with unsightly scars. She was partially disabled for the better part of two years.
Prior to filing the lawsuit, Ms. Liebeck tried to settle with McDonald’s. She asked for $20,000. This number was based upon $13,000 in medical expenses, $5,000 for the lost income of her daughter who cared for her and $2,000 for pain and suffering. This was a completely reasonable amount for what she experienced. The most McDonald’s offered to pay was $800! She hired an attorney and filed a lawsuit.
Would you take $800 for those injuries and that experience? Would you take $8,000 or even $80,000 for that matter? McDonald’s forced Ms. Liebeck into hiring an attorney and filing a lawsuit. Even after the lawsuit was filed, Ms. Liebeck’s attorney offered to settle the case for $90,000. McDonald’s refused. Instead McDonald’s forced Ms. Liebeck to go through a multi-year lawsuit, forced her to tell her story at trial to a group of strangers and made her relive the events.
Really, Ms. Liebeck is a champion and should be applauded for holding McDonald’s responsible. McDonald’s, with its teams of defense attorneys and deep pockets, took the case to trial and got annihilated. Guess what—McDonald’s is no longer serving scalding hot coffee capable of causing severe third degree burns. Do you still think the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit is frivolous now?
In reality, attorneys do not file frivolous lawsuits. Attorneys, include the attorneys at Scottsdale Injury Lawyers, file lawsuits when we are forced to because big corporations and insurance companies are greedily trying to protect their bottom lines. Attorneys will always settle a lawsuit for a fair amount and when it is in the best interests of the client. However, like Ms. Liebeck’s case, attorneys are forced to file lawsuits when they are receiving offensive and unfair offers from these entities. If unfair offers were not made, lawsuits would not be filed. The truth is, the amount of personal injury lawsuits filed are a direct reflection of the amount of unreasonable offers made. Insurance companies and big corporations dictate how many lawsuits are being filed and how congested the court systems have become.
Almost without exception, personal injury attorneys are not filing lawsuits against individuals who are on the hook for the amounts awarded. It is almost always corporations, companies and insurance companies that personal injury attorneys are going after. We seek to hold these organizations responsible for the harms they cause and the dangers they create in their singular goal of making money. So who do you think really is responsible for the tort reform movement? It is big corporations and the insurance companies who started it and continue to push tort reform propaganda. It is a nationwide strategy that they instituted in an effort to avoid responsibility so that they could continue to offer unreasonable amounts for the harms they cause people like you and your loved ones. Just like McDonald’s tried to do to Ms. Liebeck.
The list does not stop here. The same goes for Ford with their model Pinto automobiles, Exxon for the Valdez spill, pharmaceutical companies who knowingly put out dangerous and addictive drugs. The list goes on and on. Click below to watch a short video describing why civil lawsuits are important for protecting you and your family.
The personal injury attorneys at Scottsdale Injury Lawyers are passionate about what they do. They truly believe that every lawsuit filed is a shot fired at big companies and greedy corporate industries. Their work makes Scottsdale, Maricopa County and all of Arizona a safer place to live. Contact Scottsdale Injury Lawyers today if you were harmed due to the wrongful act of another. An attorney is available now to provide a free consultation.