New Documentary Highlights Twisted Tort Reform Efforts

Corporations have spent millions of dollars convincing people that the majority of personal injury lawsuits are “frivolous,” “trivial” and the work of money-grubbing trial lawyers. Since the 1980s, lobbyists have pressed this narrative on the public and politicians in an effort to push through tort reform efforts to limit public access to the court system – one of the only places “the little guy” can face off against a corporate giant and have a real shot at success.

And such efforts continue.
In the new documentary, “Hot Coffee,” directed by Susan Saladoff, the truth about the American civil justice system is examined – starting with the 1992 case of a 79-year-old woman who sued McDonalds after spilling hot coffee on herself.

Our Charlotte personal injury lawyers know this is a classic example of how the facts are twisted in the public eye to make it seem as if the woman was absurd for suing in the first place – and the court system acted egregiously in awarding her anything.

But here’s the truth about that case: She was an elderly woman who suffered severe third-degree burns on more than 15 percent of her body as a result of the spill. She had to undergo painful treatments, was hospitalized for eight days, underwent surgical skin grafts and was considered disabled for the next two years. Beyond the seriousness of these injuries, however, is the fact that executives at the restaurant chain that sold her the coffee were well aware of the risks.

In fact, the chain had been sued numerous times previously on similar claims. Executives were also privy to a study, several years before this incident, by burn researchers indicating beverages served at anything higher than 130 degrees Fahrenheit had the potential to result in serious burns. This chain routinely served coffee at 190 degrees Fahrenheit. This was not in response to public demand for hotter coffee. In fact, the company conducted its own survey of its coffee-selling competitors, and found they routinely sold the beverage at a temperature that was 30 to 40 degrees cooler.

In court, the company conceded the coffee was not fit for consumption, due to the high temperature. It knew it had the potential to scald and burn patrons, but the company made no effort to lower the temperature and mitigate the risk, or alternatively even warn people of the possible danger. It could offer no explanation regarding its inaction on this matter. A judge overseeing the trial called company leaders “callous.”

This was a company that had already been the subject of numerous lawsuits alleging this very same thing. In some cases, children and infants were the victims of burns sustained when employees accidentally spilled the beverage on them.

And yet, whenever this case is discussed, it is often talked about as if the elderly woman was being greedy, and was trying to hold a company responsible for her own carelessness.

Other anecdotes are used throughout the documentary, and highlight a similar pattern with regard to public perception. Large swaths of the public have been convinced that when large awards are granted to those who have been seriously hurt, that somehow this harms taxpayers. This has led to strict damage caps that serve only to protect corporate interests and curtail justice for those most in need of it.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

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