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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.