Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
A woman burns herself after spilling a cup of coffee. She decides to sue McDonald’s for not letting her know that a typically hot beverage was, in fact, hot. She’s awarded millions of dollars and is held up as an example of the frivolous lawsuits invading America.
What about this one?
Stella Liebeck, 79, a passenger in a parked car, suffers third-degree burns from a hot liquid poured in her lap. Her recovery is uncertain, but after several surgeries and skin grafts, she pulls through. She asks the company responsible for the accident to pay her medical bills.
Do those sound like two totally different stories to you? They’re actually one and the same. That’s what happens when the right-wing spin machine gets its hands on your story. Stella Liebeck is the woman who became the butt of every late-night comedian’s joke for an accident that could have taken her life. What’s often left out of her account is the fact that the coffee was 180 degrees Fahrenheit; McDonald’s had had more than 700 complaints about the too-high temperature; and Liebeck sought only enough money to pay her medical bills — about $20,000.
McDonald’s offered $800.
Yes, a jury later awarded Liebeck $2.8 million in damages, but the case was finally settled out of court on undisclosed terms. I stumbled across a picture of Liebeck’s injuries while researching this post, and the damage was horrific. In my opinion, she deserved whatever recompense she eventually received.
I actually did know, but learned only within the last couple of years, that Liebeck’s story has more merit than it’s typically given in pop culture. I was reminded about it again after I saw a bit about a new documentary on the Daily Dish.
As “Hot Coffee,” the HBO documentary by Susan Saladoff, explains, it’s thanks to conservatives the case came to be representative of the need for tort reform. They believe in placing caps on damages injured people can seek from companies or doctors who have done the public harm. As Scott Lemieux writes in “Burned by the Courts”:
The film describes the ways in which the tort reform movement is connected to a broader movement to lessen the political and legal accountability of corporations. Corporations in many cases have used alleged problems with the legal system to justify requiring customers and employees to submit to binding arbitration rather than civil court. When people do have access to the courts, they find that many state judiciaries — where judges are elected and eligible to receive campaign donations — are heavily tilted towards business interests.
Another case that “Hot Coffee” highlights is that of Jamie Leigh Jones, who sought justice from employer Halliburton/KBR after she was gang-raped by co-workers while living in Baghdad. The company had a policy that employees couldn’t bring charges against it but were instead subject to binding arbitration. When Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., submitted an amendment to a defense bill stating the U.S. wouldn’t do business with contractors that denied employees their day in court, 30 Republicans voted against it. Thirty Republicans thought women like Jones should have no recourse if they were sexually assaulted on the job. (Franken won my admiration for his activism and support of Jones on this case.)
Conservatives rail against big government yet have no problem with big business, which I’d argue is the more dangerous institution. If we didn’t have regulations, laws and negligence lawsuits, what would keep corporations in line? What would make them do the right thing rather than the cheap thing? Nothing. Only the threat of bad PR or a tumbling share price really scares boards of directors.
There has to be some check on their power. Big business will never do the right thing because it’s right (see BP’s reluctance to pay damages to industries affected by last year’s massive oil spill). Even in a time of record profits, the company still resisted helping those whose livelihoods and environment were destroyed by BP’s carelessness.
The bottom line is that tort reform is yet another way conservatives look out for the interests of big business rather than the interests of ordinary Americans. Yes, there are some ridiculous lawsuits being filed today, but there are also many that have merit and deserve to be heard in court. So the next time you hear someone laughing about a frivolous lawsuit, before you join in the joke, do some research to determine the facts.