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Corporations and insurance companies are trying to institute tort reform to protect their profits and to limit the ability of individuals to sue for damages done by defective products.

Supporters of tort reform, such as right wing broadcaster Rush Limbaugh, claim that the American system of justice is destroying the economy by giving victims of personal injuries their day in court. To promote their cause, Limbaugh and his ilk say that our judicial process penalizes businesses because individuals act carelessly or irresponsibly. The truth, of course, is that corporations frequently sell defective and dangerous products, and our judicial system holds those companies accountable for the damage that they do. Our system of justice works extremely well, and those who complain about it are trying to absolve businesses of responsibility when they willfully sell products that lead to personal injury and wrongful deaths.

Proponents of tort reform point to the McDonald’s Coffee Case as the shining example of everything that’s wrong with the American legal system. If a person reads only the sensationalized headlines of this case, it’s easy to believe that a jury really did reward a woman for her own carelessness. Such headlines boldly proclaimed, “Woman Driving Car Spills Hot Coffee On Herself…Wins $2.7 Million Judgment Against McDonald’s.”

Those headlines molded people’s beliefs and the jury foreman said that when the trial began, he believed that the case had no merit. However, when he and the other jurors saw and heard all the facts, they realized that the headlines were an inaccurate and incomplete version of what actually happened. Two of the rarely reported facts are that Mrs. Liebeck was not driving, and that the car in which she was a passenger was not moving when the spill occurred.

The facts and the outcome of the case are much more complex than a customer simply spilling her coffee on herself. The jury learned that McDonald’s had knowingly subjected Stella Liebeck and millions of other customers to the possibility of serious burns by serving coffee that was dangerously hot.

McDonald’s argued that it served coffee at temperatures between 180°F and 190°F because coffee experts recommend brewing and serving at that temperature for best flavor, even though at 190°F, a liquid can cause third degree burns in 3 seconds or less.

McDonald’s knew that, and the company also knew that people buying coffee at a drive-through were more likely to spill it than people sitting in the restaurant. Despite that knowledge, McDonald’s chose not to lower the temperature of its coffee or to design a safer cup.

And, during the trial, a quality assurance supervisor at McDonald’s testified that the company did not lower its coffee heat despite 700 burn complaints over 10 years.

McDonald’s also had another reason for serving coffee so hot. A pound of coffee produces more cups and more profit when it’s brewed at higher temperatures. “Water that is less than 195°F (91 C) will not extract properly.”

So, if McDonald’s, which has more than 25,000 restaurants around the world, can get 10 extra cups from each pound of coffee, and each cup sells for $1, the profits quickly add up. However, the Liebeck case was about the serving temperature, not the brewing temperature. McDonald’s could brew its coffee at any temperature that it chooses and still serve it at a much safer level. If every McDonald’s uses ten pounds of coffee a day on average, those ten extra cups a pound will generate $912,500,000. Huge profits are the reason why McDonald’s used scalding water.

Proponents of tort reform claim that the McDonald’s Coffee Case is evidence of the flaws in our judicial system, but a thorough analysis of the case shows that every part of the system worked properly. First, the judge reviewed the evidence and decided that the case had enough merit to go to trial. Second, the jury heard all the evidence, not just the small pieces that make a good headline. Third, the jury analyzed the evidence and decided in favor of the plaintiff, but the jury also found that Mrs. Liebeck was 20% responsible for her own injuries.

Finally, and this is the part of the suit that media types have largely ignored, the judge reduced the jury’s award by more than 75%. The jury awarded Mrs. Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages and 2.7 million in punitive damages, but she actually received less than $650,000 through a confidential settlement.

After the case concluded, McDonald’s reduced the temperature of its coffee, but a recent report by a coffee lover in Canada found that the company has gone back to serving scalding coffee, which presents dangers of personal injuries and wastes customers’ time.

The American system of justice is the best in the world. Our ability to sue acts to deter companies from selling dangerous and defective products. If you or someone you know has suffered because of a defective product, my firm has been representing consumers injured by defective products for decades, contact me to determine if legal action can compensate you for your injuries. And be sure to read both this blog and the Injury Library for more valuable information.

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Richard Alexander