Friday, December 26, 2003

A tort is a tort, of course, of course....

The folks at Wampum have an good article on the tort "reform" movement. One of the favorite tactics - well, actually, the only tactic - employed by those who want to limit access to the courts by people who have been injured by corporate misfeasance and malfeasance (and don't kid yourself; that's what this so-called "reform" is all about) is to trumpet stories of outlandish, idiotic-on-the-face-of-them jury awards.

As Wampum shows, however, most of those stories are complete fabrications. Lies, in other words.

Recently, I was sent a copy of the email making the rounds (perhaps you've seen it) about the so-called Stella Awards. The name comes from Stella Liebeck, the woman who sued McDonald's after being burned by a cup of its coffee. As the story is told, she drove off from the take-out window with the cup between her knees, tried to open it, spilled it on herself, sued, and won. Ha, ha, how absurd, how ridiculous.

And how false.

In fact, she was the passenger, not the driver; the car was stopped at the time; the coffee was not merely hot, it was about 180 degrees, scalding hot, causing third degree burns over 6% of her body, resulting in eight days in the hospital and skin grafts; and McDonald's had previously settled over 700 such claims, clearly showing the company knew the coffee was dangerously hot.

Which brings us back to the email. It offers seven cases of absurd jury awards. (You can read the text here if you like.) I replied to the person who sent the mail that considering how much Liebeck's case had been distorted in the retelling, I had no confidence that the stories offered now were accurate.

It turns out my doubts were well-founded. Not one of those stories is true. Not one.

Now, there actually is an outfit that gives out Stella Awards. (They admit, by the way, that the name is unfair to Stella Liebeck but apparently have no intention of changing it, which strikes me as at the least rude if not cruel, as continuing - wrongly - to associate her with supposedly idiotic suits holds her up to ridicule.) If you like, you can check out the real Stella Award winners for 2002 here. But when you do, be sure to notice that of the seven cases listed, only two have resolutions - and in both cases the plaintiff lost.

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