CAUTION: CONTENTS HOT! Everyone has seen this warning on their coffee cup. Ridiculous, right? Frivolous, right? Everyone knows that coffee is hot. Do you think you know about the lawsuit that triggered this warning? Think again.
Stella Liebeck of New Mexico bought coffee from McDonald’s. She was sitting in a car, holding the coffee between her legs (no cup-holders in the car), when she spilled it in her lap. She suffered third degree burns on her legs that required skin grafts. During her lawsuit it was discovered that McDonald’s policy required franchise owners to keep their coffee temperature at 82-88 degrees C or 180-190 degrees F. Water boils at 100C or 212F. It was also discovered that McDonald’s had over 700 reports of similar incidents and had done nothing about it. Mrs. Liebeck was awarded $2.9 million in compensatory and punitive damages. This amount was later reduced in a private settlement. Soon after the verdict was announced, a concerted media campaign started, making Mrs. Liebeck and her lawsuit a national joke. The terms ‘lawsuit lottery’ and ‘jackpot justice’ were kicked around. So began the battle for so-called ‘tort reform’ that would cap the damages that juries could award. BTW, McDonald’s now keeps their coffee at 77C or 170F.
Nebraska couple Lisa and Mike Gourley were pregnant with twins. Without going into the medical details, through the malpractice of Lisa’s OB/GYN, one of the twins was deprived of oxygen in the womb and suffered severe brain damage. In the subsequent lawsuit the jury awarded the Gourleys $5.6 million for lifetime care without knowing that the Nebraska State Legislature had capped damages for all civil cases at $1.25 million, which the trial judge imposed. Appeals to the state’s Supreme Court confirmed the cap amount as constitutional, shifting the financial cost of caring for the boy from the doctor’s insurance company to US taxpayers through Medicaid.
Seeking to ensure that state supreme courts continued to provide pro-business decisions, the US Chamber of Commerce (USCC), launched a campaign to elect pro-business judges to courts throughout the country. They started with the state of Mississippi and Justice Oliver Diaz, considered to be pro-plaintiff, who was up for re-election in 2000. The USCC spent a great deal of money in a negative campaign against Diaz and in favor of his opponent. Diaz had to get a co-signed loan to finance his own campaign. Amazingly, he won. Almost immediately however, he was investigated and charged with accepting bribes (the loan), and tax evasion by federal prosecutors from the Bush administration. He was eventually acquitted on all charges but it took 3 years to clear his name. Under the taint of past indictments, he lost a re-election bid in 2008.
Many corporations seek to avoid lawsuits altogether and so have written into the fine print of employee and customer contracts, a mandatory arbitration clause which prohibits public lawsuits, and imposes secret arbitration by a judge hired by the company.
Nineteen-year-old Jamie Leigh Jones signed just such a contract with KBR/Halliburton before she went to Iraq. When she arrived she found that she was not housed in the promised female barracks, but was instead housed with men. In less than a week she had been gang-raped and then after reporting it, locked in a shipping container for her ‘protection’. As of 2011 she had been fighting for 4 years to have her case heard in open court.
But that’s the US, right? That couldn’t happen in Canada, right? It’s true that judges aren’t elected in Canada, but you should probably still investigate before you have to go to court.