By: Catherine Nguyen Reeves, Esq.
Many of our potential clients start our conversations the same way: “I never would have thought about talking to an attorney, but this happened to me…” If you have ever been injured in an automobile accident or on someone else’s property, you probably know exactly what these clients are about to say. Such incidents can wreck a person’s life, causing injuries that require a lot of medical attention, time off work, and out-of-pocket expenses to return to normal. Car accidents may be caused by a number of factors including drunk driving, texting while driving, road rage, or simple inattentiveness.
How would you feel if you were facing multiple surgeries because someone was too irresponsible to call a designated driver for a pick-up from the bar? What if you were going to require months of physical therapy at the expense of a job promotion just because someone needed to text “ill c u soon” while driving 60 mph down a residential street?
These are the types of cases that we face every day. We receive calls from clients who have tried to correspond with insurance companies themselves and have received settlement offers that aren’t adequate enough to cover the cost of transportation to doctors’ visits, let alone wage loss and mounting medical bills. We receive calls from those who have been in accidents before and are still feeling the lasting effects from them. We also get calls from clients who get the run around when they try to contact their insurance adjuster for answers to their numerous questions.
There are a myriad of reasons why a car accident victim may choose to handle their case without the help of an attorney, but one of the main reasons is that many people are afraid of being seen as greedy, money-hungry liars whose sole purpose is to cheat the system. While this description may be accurate for some con artists, it is a gross depiction of those legitimately hurt in an incident that was not their fault.
Everyone knows the McDonald’s hot coffee case
Speaking of gross and inaccurate depictions, let’s take the McDonald’s hot coffee case, and its plaintiff, Stella Liebeck.
Here’s the short story: Ms. Liebeck purchased a 49 cent cup of coffee from McDonald’s, spilled it on herself, and then sued McDonald’s because its coffee was “too hot.” The jury awarded Ms. Liebeck millions of dollars for her trouble, and people scratched their heads in bewilderment over the result.
Here’s the longer story: Ms. Liebeck purchased a cup of coffee from McDonald’s and subsequently spilled it on herself. The coffee was so hot that it caused third-degree burns on her thighs, causing her to require seven days worth of hospitalization for skin grafts. She asked McDonalds to pay for her medical bills. McDonalds was well used to these claims since it handled many similar “I was burned by your coffee” claims before. McDonalds offered Ms. Liebeck $800 to make the claim go away even though she had hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damages.
McDonalds consistently refused to settle until trial. At trial, the jurors heard about how consumers preferred hot coffee because it brought out the flavor of the coffee beans, so McDonald’s chose to brew their coffee at extremely high temperatures at the risk of serious burns to some of their consumers. The jurors, offended at the thought that McDonald’s was placing their high coffee sales over the safety and well-being of their consumers, awarded millions of dollars of punitive damages to Ms. Liebeck as a message to McDonald’s – be a little more considerate. Ms. Liebeck ultimately received a much lower settlement as a result of a court reduction.
Likewise, our clients only want to be fairly compensated for what they have gone through due to their accidents. Even after we settle a case for them, a fair amount of our clients would rather give back the money if they could return to their pre-accident condition. There are numerous safe guards in place to prevent cheating the system, including the discovery process and jury trials. These facts aren’t often highlighted. Proponents of tort reform instead choose to attack the system, demanding caps on what a plaintiff may recover and what they may recover for.
Understanding our tort system
In order to understand the tort system (think “full tort” or “limited tort” like on your car insurance’s declaration page), we must explain what a tort is:
“Tort: A civil wrong or breach of a duty to another person, as outlined by law. A very common tort is negligent operation of a motor vehicle that results in property damage and personal injury in an automobile accident.” (Source: US Dept of Justice)
Tort actions are civil claims created as a means for compensating wrongs and harm done by one party to another person or their property. Our tort system is designed to protect one of our most sacred constitutional rights, the right to jury trial. Our tort system also works with the ultimate goal of “making a plaintiff whole” – compensating an injured party for medical bills paid, wages lost, and the pain suffered.
The term ”tort reform” implies that our current tort system needs to be reformed or changed, which is exactly what advocates of tort reform want you to believe. However, the truth is that “reforming” our tort system is really an attempt to protect big businesses by preventing injured people from suing. The argument is that the more money spent on paying plaintiffs, the more money a company will spend on insurance costs, causing those costs to be passed onto the average American.
Why say no to tort reform?
As mentioned above, proposed changes to the tort system include limitations on the amount of damages (money) that can be recovered in certain types of personal injury cases, regardless of the nature or severity of the injuries. The proposed changes may also involve procedural restrictions on the situations in which plaintiffs can file injury claims. Proponents of tort reform use propaganda, such as the abridged version of Stella Liebeck’s case, to support their position that America has gotten too sue-happy. These proponents slap labels such as “frivolous lawsuits” or “money-hungry lawyers” on their propaganda and call it a day.
However, when you hear politicians or anyone else pushing to reform our system, it is important to realize that our current tort laws were put in place for a reason: to protect citizens from wrongdoers whose negligent acts or breaches of civil duty cause injury or harm to others. Our current tort laws exist as a way to ensure the general safety of the American people and to protect our individual rights as Americans. The reality is that not all injury lawyers are “money-hungry” or “ambulance chasers,” but rather they exist to protect the rights of the people.
At Metzger Wickersham, we see first-hand the often devastating injuries our clients have endured due to someone else’s negligence. We believe that it is unjust to make injured victims assume sole responsibility for the costs associated with injuries that were caused by someone else. As personal injury lawyers, it is our duty to take on the insurance companies and big corporations in order to fight for the rights of injured parties.
Attempting to reform our current tort system by placing limits on the ability to file a personal injury claim and capping damage awards for plaintiffs only puts less responsibility on those who are liable for harming someone else. Tort reform is not for the people, but benefits the big corporations and business professionals who do not want to pay for their wrongdoings.
Don’t allow this country’s view of the tort system to prevent you from recovering from an injury that is someone else’s fault. If you have been injured and need advice, call an attorney for a judgment-free consultation.
3211 North Front Street