Illinois product liability lawyers at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm support a powerful new documentary on the famous McDonald’s “Hot Coffee” case that reveals important information about the devastating effects of medical malpractice tort reform. The film exposes efforts by major corporations and insurance companies to limit damage awards and deprive medical negligence victims of their right to sue. We agree with filmmaker and personal injury lawyer Susan Saladoff that tort reform increases the bottom line for big businesses at the expense of innocent patients and their families.
The true facts behind the “Hot Coffee” case that led to this film are not as well-known as most people believe. Major corporations invested a significant amount of money and lobbying efforts to convince the public that the spilled coffee case was nothing more than a frivolous lawsuit by a greedy plaintiff. To the contrary, the horrific burns requiring hospitalization and skin grafts that the victim suffered speak for themselves. Like many of us do every day, the victim merely attempting to put cream and sugar in her coffee while stopped in the passenger’s seat of her car when the coffee spilled, causing her to suffer excruciating pain. The coffee was intentionally heated to 190 degrees, a scalding temperature that can cause skin to burn in just 2 seconds.
79-year-old Stella Liebeck had serious third-degree burns, requiring seven days in the hospital and $200,000 in medical expenses. Evidence brought to light at trial showed that McDonald’s knew that its coffee caused severe burns, defending itself against more than 700 other burn claims in a ten-year period. Still, the negligent company continued to expose consumers to the risk of harm.
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The verdict may be the most controversial part of the spilled coffee case, with the jury awarding the victim $2.7 million for McDonald’s willful, reckless, and malicious conduct. However, as “Hot Coffee” points out, this award is equivalent to just two days of McDonald’s coffee sales. We do not believe this is enough to deter negligent behavior by a corporation who showed a continuous disregard for consumer safety. On appeal, a judge reduced the award to a mere $480,000, barely enough to cover Liebeck’s medical and attorney fees.
The documentary also points out the effect of damage caps on taxpayers, who are forced to pay for the negligence of others. It also tells the story of a Nebraska boy who suffered severe brain damage at birth. Although the jury awarded his family $5.6 million in damages to cover the cost of lifetime medical care, a state mandated medical malpractice damage cap reduced the award to $1.25 million. After all of the legal expenses were paid, the boy’s family was left with a few hundred thousand dollars and taxpayers were left to foot the bill for the rest of his medical expenses.
Another important topic the film addresses are arbitration clauses. These clauses are often buried in the fine print of a number of contracts, from employment to cell phones, and are often overlooked, resulting in dangerous consequences. A key example is the woman who was drugged, raped and placed in a shopping container while working in Iraq, but an arbitration clause in her employment contract nearly prevented her from going to court. Luckily, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stepped in, and her trial is underway in Houston, but other arbitration clause victims may not be so fortunate.
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The final story in the film centers on Oliver Diaz, a former Mississippi Supreme Court justice whose judicial career was ruined by a corporate campaign designed to punish him for his pro-consumer views. This is yet another example of the dangerous impact that corporate money and influence can exert on our legislative and judicial systems.
Our product liability lawyers know that innocent victims injured by corporate negligence deserve to be compensated for their pain and suffering. One size fits all arbitrary damage caps are insufficient to meet the needs of many of these victims, and taxpayers are forced to pay the extra expense. The Seventh Amendment gives all citizens of this country a right to a trial by jury, and a jury should be able to determine the appropriate amount necessary to compensate individuals on a case-by case-basis, by carefully assessing the evidence before them. “Hot Coffee” reveals important truths about our civil justice system and self-serving attempts by corporate businesses that are weakening consumer protections.