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U.S. Tort Reform Evolution Chronicled in New Documentary

Law is one of those unique institutions that is both fluid, and firm. It seeks to provide fair justice to all, but it must adapt to the changing circumstances of the time.

Sometimes, change occurs through legislation. Other times, it happens incrementally, with individual case rulings setting acceptable standards and precedents. When jurisdictions conflict, sometimes the U.S. Supreme Court steps in, either formalizing or rejecting the standard.

All of this is to say that the law of our founding fathers may be principally the same, but in many ways, looks very different. The problem, however, is that not all of this change has been entirely organic. Our Coral Springs personal injury attorneys know that, unfortunately, there has been substantial pressure from outside forces – particularly those with big business interests – which in the last three decades has fought hard not only to limit plaintiff’s access to a fair justice system, but also to convince the public this is a good thing.

This is the subject of a new documentary, “Hot Coffee, The Movie,” directed by Susan Saladoff. The film details how big business has worked hard to press for favorable legislation, but also to win the hearts and minds of average people. A public relations campaign, beginning in the 1980s and continuing over the last 20 years, has vigorously and cleverly fought to convince the public our civil juries are “out of control,” too many lawsuits are “frivolous,” compensation awarded to victims is “absurd” and judges are failing to do enough to keep it all in check.

In order to further this message, the documentary details how business lobbyists press anecdotes containing half-truths or, in some cases, outright lies. These interests have included big tobacco, big pharmacy and big insurance, just to name a few. The public, and by proxy, jurors, have been wrongly led to believe that large damages paid to a victim will somehow impact the pocketbooks of the average citizen. This is not true. Studies have shown that damage caps – one of the most successful efforts of these lobbyists, which limits the total a victim can collect – do nothing to reduce insurance premiums or health care costs for the average consumer.

What damage caps do accomplish is to limit the liability of companies and municipalities that act recklessly. They also serve to ensure victims who are seriously injured or survivors of those killed will not be able to recover nearly enough to cover their expenses.

And yet, many still buy the narrative of the greedy plaintiff and even greedier plaintiff lawyers. A perfect example, and the movie’s namesake, involves the early-1990s case of a fast food customer who sued the corporate giant after suffering severe scalding in the form of third-degree burns after spilling hot coffee on her lap. She was much-maligned by the media, especially when she collected millions in damages. After all, she spilled the drink on herself!

But here’s what was lesser-known: Company executives were aware for years that coffee was served at a temperature far too hot. In fact, executives conceded in testimony the coffee was “not fit for human consumption” because it was so hot. The company had received hundreds of complaints of people suffering severe burns, some of them infants and children. In this case, the victim had to be hospitalized and undergo skin-grafting surgery due to the extent of the burns. Yes, we all know coffee can be hot, but potential spilling of it is a foreseeable risk, and the company knew in this case the coffee was hot enough to cause serious injury. The firm also knew that competitors served their hot beverages at temperatures far below its standard.

The end result is lawmakers protecting the profits of big business at the expense of injury victims and their families.

Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.

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More Blog Entries:
Lane v. Ballot – Criminal Acts Can Warrant a Civil Case, Aug. 20, 2014, Coral Springs Injury Lawyer Blog

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