Sunday, August 14, 2005


From the LA Times courtesy of
Crooks and Liars:

For example, a survey conducted for the American Tort Reform Assn. in 2003 found that by a ratio of 2 to 1, respondents believed that lawsuits were harming the economy and stifling job creation. In a survey released in June by Common Good, a conservative legal reform group, 83% of respondents said it was too easy to file invalid lawsuits, and 55% agreed with the statement that "many people use the justice system almost like a lottery — they start lawsuits to see if they can win millions."

Such fears, fanned by anecdotes like the Grazinski tale, have no empirical basis, said Joanne Doroshow, executive director of the Center for Justice and Democracy, a consumer group that opposes the agenda of the business groups. "The data tends not to support the allegation that there is an out-of-control crisis with the legal system," she said.

She and others point to surveys by the National Center for State Courts and the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics showing an apparent decline in personal injury suits and in the size of jury awards to successful plaintiffs.

But, hey, what about that McDonald's hot coffee case? Wasn't that clearly an example of a judicial system gone mad?

According to popular accounts of the lawsuit, Liebeck coaxed nearly $3 million from an Albuquerque jury in 1994 after being scalded by McDonald's coffee she spilled on herself while riding in a car. These are the story's best-known elements, but filling in the missing facts puts the case in a different light.

Trial testimony showed that at 180 to 190 degrees, McDonald's coffee was much hotter than that served by other restaurants or by people in their homes. The fast-food chain had received at least 700 complaints about hot coffee in the previous decade and had paid more than half a million dollars in settlements, according to trial testimony cited by the Wall Street Journal.

Liebeck's injuries were hardly minor. She suffered third-degree burns on her thighs and groin area, was hospitalized for a week and had to undergo painful skin grafts. Before filing a lawsuit, she wrote McDonald's requesting that it lower the temperature of its coffee and cover her uninsured medical bills and incidental costs of about $20,000. McDonald's offered $800.

here for the rest.

Becky and I saw Ralph Nader speak at the University of Houston back in 2000. When he started talking about "tort reform" and how it's based on bogus "evidence," he deftly demonstrated his point. He asked the audience, easily over 1,000 people which is enough for a statistical sample, to raise their hands if they had ever been sued or had sued somebody else. Surprisingly, absolutely no one raised a hand. Nader went on to observe that the "rash" of frivolous lawsuits we constantly hear about in the mainstream media is a complete fabrication. What it's really all about, he told us, is business trying to abolish citizens' only way to redress grievances against the powerful. At that point, my mind flashed back to a billboard I had seen many times on the way to Austin on F.M. 2920 near Tomball advertising what appeared to be a grassroots organization called "Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse." When we got home, I looked the group up and found out that it was actually an organization of businesses, not citizens. Of course, there will always be anecdotal evidence of weird lawsuits, but a few random cases here and there in no way amount to an epidemic. The statistical data clearly show that there is no rash of frivolous lawsuits: "tort reform" is about screwing over average ordinary people, and that's a fact.