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What is “tort reform?”  Tort reform is the attempt by insurance companies and big business to prevent seriously injured people from being compensated for their injuries.  Tort reform is intended to protect businesses from paying for their negligence and to protect the profits of insurance companies.  If their real purpose was to stop frivolous lawsuits, as they claim, why is their major goal aimed at placing “caps” or limits on what the most seriously injured people can recover for their injuries, without regard to the validity of that person’s claim?

Unfortunately the cornerstone of the “tort reform” movement is the McDonald’s Coffee Cup case.  We’ve all heard of it.  We’ve all heard how unfair that decision was.  But wait.  Do you know all of the facts of that case?  Do you know what McDonald’s admitted to in that case?  Do you know what caused the jury to award punitive damages against McDonald’s?  Listen to this, from Morgan, The Recorder, September 30, 1994!: 

  • McDonald’s corporate specifications were to sell coffee at 180 –190 degrees.  Yet this will cause third-degree burns in 2-7 seconds. 

  • Third-degree burns burn the skin away to the muscle/fatty-tissue layer.  They do not heal without skin grafting and repeated debridement (cutting away of dead tissue).  They result in permanent disfigurement, extreme pain and disability for many months, if not years. 

  • McDonald’s admitted that its coffee was “not fit for consumption” at the temperature at which it was sold.  McDonald’s admitted that it has known about the risk of serious burns from its scalding hot coffee for more than 10 years. 

  • from 1982 to 1992 McDonald received notice of 700 men, women and children burned by their scalding hot coffee, including one woman who had coffee dropped into her lap through the service window.  Many people received severe burns to the genital area, perineum, inner thighs, and buttocks. 

  • McDonald’s admitted in court that it does not warn customers and that customers are unaware of the risk of such serious burns from their coffee. 

The injured woman, Stella Liebeck, 79 years old, was sitting in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car.  While the car was stopped she attempted to remove the coffee cup’s lid.  Unfortunately the cup tipped.  She received third-degree burns over 16 percent of her body, necessitating hospitalization for eight days, debridement, skin grafting, scarring, and disability for more than two years.  Before trial she requested a settlement of $20,000.  McDonald’s refused.  They wanted a trial.  The jury awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages for her injuries.  They reduced that by 20% for her percentage of fault.  They also found McDonald’s conduct so egregious that they awarded 2.7 million dollars in punitive damages (roughly 2 days of McDonald’s revenue from coffee sales).  However, the judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000.  In refusing to grant a new trial to McDonald’s, Judge Robert Scott called McDonald’s behavior “callous”. 

So what is the problem.  If anything, we should be complaining that the Judge should not have reduced the award.  If McDonald’s knew the risks of serious burns, ignored it, and decided as a business decision to sell scalding coffee, how can 2 days of revenue be considered to be too high an award to Stella Liebeck?  If a jury of our peers made the decision after hearing all the evidence, why should a judge reduce the award!

Or consider this, if you think that 2 days of revenue is too much:  the system worked!  The jury made their decision.  It obviously wasn’t made without thoughtful deliberation since they reduced her compensatory damages by the 20% they thought she was at fault.  There was clearly evidence supporting the decision that McDonald’s actions went beyond negligence and supported punitive damages.  And the Judge, as overseer of the process, reduced what he thought was a high punitive award.

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