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Lawsuit Abuse

Lawsuit abuse is one many people's minds now days. Those who are most vocal about lawsuit abuse regard personal injury lawyers as the problem with our current tort system.

 

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They say that there are too many frivolous lawsuits and too many outrageous lawsuit verdicts with ridiculously high awards given. Because of lawsuit abuse, they say the price of healthcare has skyrocketed along with many other products that have been brought to market.

Many who are vocal about lawsuit abuse mention these high awards akin to a "lawsuit lottery" where a few win a huge jackpot at the expense of everyone else who ends up paying for it in the end. They say that life-saving products are kept off the market because of lawsuit abuse as well as doctors under-serving communities and the rise of healthcare costs due to rising malpractice insurance payments.

When the subject of ridiculous, stupid and outrageous lawsuits pops up, the first incident that pops to many people's minds is the McDonald's "coffee lawsuit" of 1994. In this incident, the plaintiff won $2.7 million in punitive damages from the fast food giant after she spilled hot coffee in her lap. Cries for tort reform shortly followed this case.

This incident has been the poster child for legal reform for many years to come. However, some aspects of this case did not receive much media attention. For instance, the verdict was lessened on appeal to $480,000. The 81-year-old plaintiff received third degree burns on the thighs, groin and buttocks requiring skin grafts and a 7-day stay in the hospital. The plaintiff simply asked McDonald's to reimburse her medical expenses and McDonald's refused.

McDonalds kept their coffee 20-degrees hotter than other similar coffee vendors. The fast food giant had 700 previous incidents related to hot coffee spills, which they had settled. According to interviews and internal documents, McDonalds knew they had a problem and refused to either lower the temperature of the coffee of warn customers of the potential for injury.

Even so, every year there are outrageously large lawsuit verdicts that make the news and renewed cries for legal reform always follow. What the media inevitably fails to report, however, is that these outrageous lawsuit awards almost never make it past the appeals process. Many lawsuits are even settled after the verdict and before appeal since the plaintiff is aware that the amount for punitive damages will in all probability be greatly reduced.

When people speak of stopping lawsuit abuse, many talk about putting a cap on punitive damages in personal injury cases. Many states are currently proposing legislation that would put a cap on punitive damages at approximately $250,000. Large companies do cost-analysis in order to see if it is cheaper to make their products safer or litigate the claims in court. When judgments are too small against these companies they have no incentive to improve their products and make them less hazardous for consumers.

In 2002, in Hayes v. Courtney and Courtney Pharmacy Inc., the 43-year-old plaintiff with ovarian cancer sued her pharmacist for intentionally diluting her cancer medication. The defendant diluted cancer medication to 4,200 other cancer patients as well, shortening their lives. The plaintiff's husband George was rewarded a record $2.2 billion in punitive damages. The jury said they knew that Mr. Hayes would likely not collect, but they wanted to make a statement about the egregious behavior of the pharmacist towards cancer patients. The judge later reduced the verdict to $330 million, which Mr. Hayes is also unlikely to collect. The pharmacist is serving a 30-year sentence for criminal charges in the matter.

Tort reform advocates have pointed to this outrageous lawsuit award and called for legal reform in order to make the numbers more reasonable. Even many of those who are opposed to tort reform, would like to see numbers like these come down in order to give the advocates less fuel when they cry "lawsuit abuse!"

But, it is up to both sides of the tort reform issue to first acknowledge that lawsuit abuse does take place and what reasonable steps need to be taken in order to make sure that companies are reasonably punished when they do commit outrageous acts of negligence or intentional torts.

For instance, would it make sense that in cases such as the exploding Ford Pinto, faulty Firestone tires, Exxon Valdez oil spill or Big Tobacco cancer lawsuits that a cap of $250,000 in punitive damages would be enough of a penalty so that these multi-billion dollar corporations would never perpetrate these kinds of civil injustices again?

Like all negotiations, the high-ball and low-ball figures need to be thrown out and both the advocates and opponents to tort reform need to find a rational middle ground in order to affect real change. It serves none of the interests for each side to entrench themselves in an unrealistically inflexible position.

One of the reforms that is starting to take hold in some states is split-recovery punitive damages where both the plaintiff and the states split the large personal injury awards. In split-recovery states, the state will take 50 - 75 percent of the punitive damages awards and use this money for the good of all citizens in the state.

Other legal reform measures are currently being worked on by both the U. S. House of Representatives and the Senate. Once such bill is H. R. 420: The Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act of 2005, which disciplines personal injury lawyers who "forum shop" or conceal or destroy documents among other issues. The bill is divided along political affiliation, with Republicans wholly behind the bill and Democrats wholly opposed.

While many say frivolous lawsuits are clogging up the court, other say that there are many other types of lawsuit abuse that needs to be dealt with in a reasonable and prudent manner, so that all citizens benefit, ultimately from the reforms.

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 


 

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