When asked what tort reform is, most Americans will scratch their heads and shrug their shoulders before replying with a nervous “I don’t know.”
This is because most Americans don’t know a lot about their civil justice system.
Many people have heard the term“frivolous lawsuits mentioned by politicians, and how tax dollars are wasted on these frivolous lawsuits through court costs. Upon hearing this, people jump to agree with politicians. The politicians then cite the now infamous McDonald’s hot coffee case, when Stella Liebeck sued McDonald’s for making coffee that was “too hot.” Or at least that’s how the politicians spin it.
What really happened with the Liebeck case, and what politicians don’t talk about, is this: A 79-year-old Stella Liebeck suffered third degree burns on her groin and inner thighs while trying to add sugar to her coffee at her local McDonald’s. McDonald’s knew that keeping its coffee at 190 degrees was troublesome. They had settled about 700 previous cases of scalding coffee incidents before Liebeck.
However, during the trial McDonald’s testified that it did not know its coffee was that hot, and that they hadn’t consulted with a burn specialist. But the Shriner Burn Institute had indeed warned McDonald’s not to serve coffee above 130 degrees. And so the jury came back with a decision to award $2.7 million to Liebeck. Ultimately, Liebeck settled for an undisclosed amount with the corporation.
Gov. Rick Perry has touted tort reform as one of the reasons for the “Texas miracle.” And, former President George W. Bush used tort reform as one of his platforms when he ran for governor in 1994. Since 2003, the Lone Star state has adhered to the policy of “loser pays,” which means that the losing party of a lawsuit must pay the court costs of the opposing party.
Stories like this happen all the time, and the civil justice system is in place to protect citizens. However, what tort reform really amounts to is the reduction of citizen protections.
In Texas, big businesses pump money into the election campaigns of conservative legislators and judges. This leads to a court system that sides with businesses nearly all of the time.
An unfortunate effect of this is that there is a cap on non-economic damages. If someone wins a lawsuit for medical malpractice, the maximum amount of money they can receive as a settlement is $250,000 from a doctor and $750,000 from a hospital.
If one of your family members is gravely injured by an incompetent doctor, and you sue that doctor for the amount of money your family member will need to pay in healthcare costs for the rest of their life, you can only receive $250,000. Even if their actual healthcare costs are closer to $6 million, the cap remains at $250,000. Even if the jury awarded you more money, the judge would reduce the amount to $250,000.
Politicians might say tort reform protects taxpayer money, but I think we all know who it really protects.
Alejandro Caballero is a creative writing junior and may be reached at [email protected]