Special Interests Use Anecdotes to Mislead PublicBy Craig McDonald
Texans for Public Justice, Director
On April Fool's Day newspapers ran an opinion piece by American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) President Sherman Joyce ("Frivolous lawsuits make it feel like April Fool's Day all year long"), who cites two lawsuits to demonstrate the need for more tort "reform."
Joyce cites a Seattle man's suit against the dairy industry for clogging his arteries as the kind of court-clogging lunacy that cries out for tort-reform. Joyce neglects to mention that this case never clogged the courts. A federal judge perfunctorily dismissed the lawsuit earlier this year.
Decrying the "infamous $2.86 million verdict against McDonald's over spilled coffee," Joyce is similarly selective in presenting the facts. Seventy-nine-year-old Stella Liebeck suffered third-degree burns after spilling 180-degree coffee in her lap. She required skin grafts and was hospitalized for eight days. Few people can drink liquids hotter than 140 degrees, but McDonald's kept its urns stoked because hotter water yields more coffee. Prior to Liebeck's accident, McDonald's received coffee-burn complaints from 700 customers. After McDonald's refused Liebeck's offer to settle for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses, a jury awarded her $200,000 and found McDonald's liable for $2.7 million in punitive damages (the equivalent of two days' worth of McDonald's coffee sales). The judge reduced this award to $480,000, and Liebeck later settled out of court for an undisclosed amount that McDonald's insisted be kept secret.
Joyce leaves out these inconvenient facts because they do not support his caricatures. Nor does he mention that ATRA is funded by the real parties clamoring for tort reform: otherwise unaccountable corporations such as big polluters, insurance companies and cigarette giant Philip Morris. These corporations are using anecdotal half truths in a campaign to dupe the public. If these are the best "lawsuit abuse" examples that they can dig up, we should not gut our court system but vigorously defend it.
The real face of "tort reform" is no joking matter. Three of the top financial supporters of the "tort-reform" movement in Texas (William McMinn, Gordon Cain and J. Virgil Waggoner) made millions in the Sterling Group, a Houston chemical company takeover firm. On the very day that Joyce's piece on lawsuits appeared, Sterling Chemicals' Texas City plant leaked a cloud of benzene, hydrochloric acid and other toxic chemicals, forcing 40,000 area residents to seek indoor shelter. Seven plant workers were injured by a similar chemical leak at the plant last year and 750 people were sent to the hospital in 1994 after the plant's warning system failed to alert them of a leak of 3,000 pounds of ammonia gas. Not surprisingly, Sterling Chemicals has faced a rash of suits from Texas City families who are sick of Sterling endangering their health.
Powerful corporate interests ridicule the civil justice system in an attempt to undermine it because this is the one part of our government they cannot buy. Corporations and tycoons curry favor with politicians in our regulatory agencies, legislature, governor's mansion and even the Texas Supreme Court. But civil juries of uncorrupted citizens are not for sale. The tobacco barons, for example, bought off our politicians for decades. But the fear of being judged by 12 regular Texarkana citizens recently forced them to accept Texas' unprecedented $15.3 billion tobacco settlement.
If we slam our courtroom doors shut in response to corporate fairy tales from ATRA, McDonald's, Philip Morris and Sterling Chemicals, they will have the last laugh, and it will come at our expense.