Tort Reform

What is “tort reform”?

“Tort reform” is a phrase used for the process of limiting the ability of injured persons to fairly recover for their injuries, even when their injuries are caused by someone else.

One popular technique of persons championing tort reform is to use social medial to spread tales of what they consider outrageous verdicts by out of control juries. Often citing the case of Stella Liebeck, of Albuquerque, NM, who after purchasing coffee at the drive through of McDonalds, placed the coffee between her legs and opened the lid to add cream and sugar, spilling the extraordinarily hot coffee on herself. She sued McDonalds and was awarded nearly $3 million.

Tort reformers will argue that the coffee is hot, and what would be expected when you put coffee spilling the coffee is a risk one takes when buying it, there are several facts about this case that the tort reformer will not bring up on their own. For example, the McDonalds coffee was kept at approximately 185 degrees, while most coffee in the home is served at 135 – 140 degrees. Additionally, one of the witnesses for McDonalds testified that McDonald’s was aware that a burn hazard exists for food above 140 degrees, and admitted that the coffee, at the temperature at which it was served, was unfit for human consumption because it would cause burns of the mouth and throat.

Moreover, 10 years of McDonalds records revealed that over 700 people had made claims against McDonalds because of burns sustained from McDonald’s coffee, showing that McDonalds was aware of a burn hazard with its coffee.

In addition to ignoring relevant facts about these cases, the tort reformer seems to gloss over the fact that verdicts such as those in Ms. Liebeck’s case were returned by juries. That is, a jury listened to the evidence, and decided that the defendant was at fault, and determined the damages award. It is not as if the plaintiff just demands a sum of money, and by law the defendant has to pay the injured person. There is due process of law that allows a jury to decide if the injured person should receive payment.

Some states have limits on a damages award for medical malpractice, others do not. For example, in Nebraska, there is a $1.75 million limit on such damages, and in neighboring Iowa, there is no such limit. The result is that a person who is injured in Iowa stands to potentially receive more compensation for the same injury sustained in Nebraska.