I was just having a discussion with a conservative contact about if and why the American Middle Class is eroding.
My acquaintance fell back on the argument of "Tort Reform".
- "Liberal Judges, " wrote my friend, "now use their bench to rule against
big corporations in stupid lawsuits to the tune of millions of dollars, and it's
no wonder companies are going out of business or moving out of the country.
When some dumbass woman gets awarded (it's been appealed) millions of
dollars because she:
a. voluntarily bought McDonald's coffee
it on her dashboard above the steering wheel
c. engaged the transmission and
d. dumped hot coffee on her lap, through no fault of McDonalds
...then it's no wonder we're losing what you say is the middle class. I read
an article that said Tort reform would do more to return good, high paying jobs
to America than any other thing."
I have to admit that the McDonald's coffee case of 1992 had always stuck me as the best argument against "frivolous" lawsuits. And it's certainly hit home with many Americans...becoming a part of our ideological landscape (for example, I had forgotten that the case was almost 20 years old...it still feels fresh.)
But in discussing the issue with my contact, I decided to go to Wikipedia and bone up on the case (because this is not a scholarly forum, I didn't feel the need to seek a more authoritative source, but they can be found in the reference section of this wikipedia article.)
It is at:
Like my corrispondent, I had always assumed (for no good reason) certain facts about the case.
I'd always thought that:
1) The woman was young.
2) That the woman was actually driving
3) That the woman was doing something inherently stupid and unsafe (such as the detail that my conservative friend adds in his email about the coffee being on the dashboard...where did THAT come from?)
Here are the facts of the case as outlined by wikipedia:
Background of the case
On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, ordered a 49-cent cup of coffee from the drive-thru of a local McDonald's restaurant. Liebeck was in the passenger's seat of her Ford Probe, and her grandson Chris parked the car so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. She placed the coffee cup between her knees and pulled the far side of the lid toward her to remove it. In the process, she spilled the entire cup of coffee on her lap.
Liebeck was wearing cotton sweatpants; they absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin as she sat in the puddle of hot liquid for over 90 seconds, scalding her thighs, buttocks, and groin. Liebeck was taken to the hospital, where it was determined that she had suffered third-degree burns on six percent of her skin and lesser burns over sixteen percent. She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent skin grafting. Two years of treatment followed.
Attempts to settle
Liebeck sought to settle with McDonald's for US$20,000 to cover her medical costs, which were $11,000, but the company offered only $800. When McDonald's refused to raise its offer, Liebeck retained Texas attorney Reed Morgan. Morgan filed suit in a New Mexico District Court accusing McDonald's of "gross negligence" for selling coffee that was "unreasonably dangerous" and "defectively manufactured." McDonald's refused Morgan's offer to settle for $90,000.
Morgan offered to settle for $300,000, and a mediator suggested $225,000 just before trial, but McDonald's refused these final pre-trial attempts to settle.
McDonald's refused to settle perhaps because, though there had been numerous lawsuits alleging that hot coffee was "defectively manufactured," courts had consistently dismissed the cases before trial on the grounds that coffee burns were an open and obvious danger.
Upon closer reflection, it becomes kind of an eyeopener, huh?
Perhaps Republicans are really so set on "Tort Reform" because most tort lawyers tend to give money to the Democratic Party? Could that be it? Hmmmmm.