"Tort Reform" And Hot Coffee

Scott Lemieux reviews "Hot Coffee," a documentary that describes how corporate interests leveraged the 1994 Liebeck v McDonald's case into a successful movement to curtail civil suits:

If tort tales were merely fodder for sitcoms and comedians, the distortions might be harmless. But these tales are often used (and sometimes created) for political purposes. A major strength of Saladoff’s documentary is that she links the false narrative about the McDonald’s coffee case to a larger - and pernicious - political cause. Tort reform groups funded by corporations have used the fictionalized portrayal of the Liebeck suit and other tort tales to compel legislatures to limit access to the courts and place arbitrary caps on damages.

The contrast between the Seinfeld episode--where Kramer mildly scalds himself trying to sneak a cup of coffee into a film--and the actual circumstances of the Liebeck case couldn't be more stark. Yet the Seinfeld episode perfectly encapsulated the way the case was perceived nationally--some crazy woman who burned herself a little was looking for a payout. The film deals with this particularly effectively--first by asking "people on the street" if they'd heard about the case, then showing them the actual photographs. The coffee Liebeck spilled on her lap was so hot that even through her clothes, it managed to melt of significant portions of her skin. Rather than minor burns, she suffered third degree burns that required skin grafts. The pictures themselves are absolutely grotesque, and the contrast between how the "people on the street" react to the mention of the initial case, and how they react once shown the photos of Liebeck's burns, is drastic. The case suddenly stops being a punchline. It's just too bad that reversing the progress conservatives have made in preventing access to the courts isn't as easily done.

The Jaime Lee Jones case, involving a former KBR employee who claimed she was raped in Iraq and until recently was prevented from having a day in court because of a mandatory arbitration clause in her contract--was a direct result of the "tort reform" movement. Jones lost her case, but her story lead to Congress preventing contracts with companies that force arbitrations in cases of rape and assault, thanks to Senator Al Franken. Even the fact that she lost though, underscores the point that mostly what corporations have to fear from civil suits are fair hearings.

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