Reforming the legal system against stupidity, why is it so hard?

Every day now, we get more and more of those “mcdonalds coffee” type legal cases. Cases of outstanding stupidity and greed. Everybody agrees that these stupid people should not get the millions that they do recieve yet nobody seems to be asking the quite obvious question… Why ARE the cases being ruled in favour of the plaintiffs?

Is it that the media representation of the case has distorted the facts and biased the case to merely make these look more stupid? Is it that any change in the legal system that would prevent this would cause an even grosser injustice somewhere else in the system? Is it just simply very good, very charismatic lawyers? Why has it been so hard to simply throw these cases out of court?

What most surprises me is that the people who lose the most money from these cases have been your generic Evil Multinational Corps ™ while the “little guy” has reaped in millions of ill gotton loot. I would have thought in my cynical mood that this kind of thing would have been crushed silently and efficiently by a corrupt legal system who seem (by popular accout) to conveniently overlook all the other gross Evils ™ that these corps apparently get away with.


runs screaming out of thread

Would someone PLEASE enlighten this guy? I have to go and get ready-my family’s coming over for a get together.

Really? Cite? The VAST majority of lawsuits are settled or dismissed long before they hit a trial.

Well, in the case of the McDonald’s coffee, the facts are a bit more complicated than just, “The woman spilled coffee on herself” In fact she spent a considerable amount of time in the hospital and was very severely burned. The real damning evidence against McDonald’s, IIRC, was that they knew that the coffee was being served at a dangerous temperature, but chose not to change their practices. Punitive damages are designed to punish people for doing just this sort of thing.

Again, the VAST majority of lawsuits are dismissed or settled. Cries of “Tort Reform” do come up from time to time. One suggestion that is often made is to make the looser pay the winner’s legal fees. Some think this will make people think twice before they bring a frivolous lawsuit.

Others think it would ‘chill’ people from pursuing their claims that might be legitimate, but that they still might loose. You can imagine, for example, someone who brings a product liability claim in good faith against a major corporation and looses being stuck paying the corporation for a million dollars in fees. The plaintiff might believe that they have a good case, but they also know that they might loose. Plaintiffs may not be willing to run the risk of having to pay the fees, and thus potential injustices would go uncorrected.

Also, you should be aware that while the huge sexy jury verdict might make the news, six months later when the appellate court strikes said verdict down it does not. Witness the recent nonsense with the tobacco case awarding 28 bazillion dollars to that stupid woman. There is no way that verdict will be sustained.

Those who do not learn from Board history are doomed to repeat it.

The media is the problem here, but not because it somehow encourages the legal system and juries to award ridiculous damages to people who don’t deserve it. The problem is that the media makes people like you think that you know how a case should come out, when you don’t know what happened in the courtroom, you don’t know what happened in the jury room, and you have no clue about the content of either side’s case. Moreover, the media leads you to believe, by highlighting cases where plaintiffs receive apparently ridiculous awards, that the whole legal system is somehow broken, when the vast majority of lawsuits are resolved rather undramatically.

The company where I work has been through several lawsuits for various reasons, and I’m well familiar with all of them. In every case, there was an arguably justified reason to pursue it on both sides, there was back and forth legal wrangling, there was negotiation, there was intermediate and final resolutions, and never was I given cause to think that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the legal system, though we never outright won (or lost).

because americans really believe that, if something bad happens, it is because somebody screwed up.

[sub]it’s called ‘assumption of risk’ folks - you get to decide to pick up the coffee, fly the ‘defective’ plane, roll the SUV, ad infintum - you get to screw up, and you get to deal with the consequences[/sub]

Wow, it’s not often I can argue against just about everyone in a thread.

Guinastasia and ** minty green** would you take a look outside and tell me what you see? We’re neck deep in religious debates and they’re all discussing the same thing: could God create a burritto so hot even an athiest’s prayer couldn’t move it? Or something like that. They all blur together.

happyheathen, yes, there’s assumption of risk. There’s also the negligence of a corporation. If you’re driving on the freeway, there’s a chance you’ll crash and die. You assume that possibility when you turn on the engine. What you don’t assume is that the air bag which would have saved your life was defective and the seatbelt which would have kept you in your seat was misinstalled.

Rhum Runner I’ve heard that only about 10% of the cases that are filed actually make it to trial. In regards to the McDonald’s coffee, I happen to believe the result there was a bit extreme. Yes, I’ve read the facts of the case. Yes, I’ve read previous threads. Nevertheless, my opinion is that the original jury verdict was well above what was called for, even in punative damages.
But this isn’t about the McDonald’s case. Merely about tort reform.

hansel, when Scalia was talking to our school last year, he explained why they don’t allow tv cameras in the Supreme Court’s courtroom. When you look at the soundbites stations play for politicians, cutting a 15 minute speech down to 15 seconds, the justices didn’t want to see that happening to court opinions. People need to understand the entire case in context, not merely a soundbite’s worth of a decision.

Shalmanese, cases are being ruled in favor of the plaintiffs because that’s how the jury decided the case. If you blame the juries, then fine. But the solution then isn’t to change what comes into the courtroom, it’s to educate the juries.
Many people in this country don’t know basic legal principles. They’re exposed to them for the first time at trial and are expected to use those rules to render a verdict. We need more legal education in this country. Basic legal education like “no, this message board is NOT infringing on your freedom of speech.”
I’m straying. I apologize. Look, if the jury renders a verdict in favor of a plaintiff, even if you don’t agree with that verdict, you cannot go back and say “this case never should have come to trial in the first place.” Obviously it should have. It had enough merit to make it that far, didn’t it?
There are ways to safeguard against truly assinine cases. A motion of Summary Judgment is but one of those ways. I don’t think we can establish comprehensive tort reform without “chilling” ,as Rhum Runner said, legitimate cases. The solution needs to come from the other end, jury education.
And finally, juries aren’t as bad as we all make them out to be. You see headlines but that’s all you see. Why? $20,000 verdicts are boring! Verdicts for the “evil” defendants aren’t as happy as one man taking on the corporation and winning. In fact, there are many jurisdictions where lawyers will try to avoid jury trials because many of the judges will give a more favorable decision than 12 random men and women of the county.

Um, in how many cases has summary dismissal and/or summary judgement been rendered?

Not many. The “every case is entitled to a hearing” has been conflated with “something went wrong, therefore someone screwed up” to produce the insane situation wherein a company (Piper Aircraft) was held responsible ($4.4 mil, IIRC) because they DIDN’T install a shoulder belt in a ca. 1953 Super Cub.

Reality: The moron bought the plane, operated it in a manifestly unsafe manner, and splattered his brain all over a camera mount - if a shoulder belt should have been installed, why did the moron not install one?

The plane was NOT defective - the operator was - yet the jury decided that the nasty corporation was at fault.

(a judgement reduced and/or set aside at appelate level still costs legal fees).

Bottom line: YOU screw up, YOU deal with the consequences. For giggles, read the warnings on ladders - yup, people sue over the basic law of gravity - and win.

Shalmanese, didn’t you happen to notice our state premiers addressing this issue just a few months ago and introducing legislation which will dramatically change tort law related to public liability?

For those outside of Australia, we have had an insurance crisis of monumental proportions here this year with community groups being unable to find affordable insurance for public events and medical practitioners unable to find medical insurance AT ALL in some cases. This has been due to the combined effect of a couple of major insurance companies going broke and the courts awarding unprecedented amounts of compensation in personal injury and public/professional liability actions.

And yes, very many major corporations will make a settlement even if they are not legally at fault. It’s not only considerably cheaper than fighting the case in court (a great many claims are in the $10,000-$15,000 range), but the token payout keeps the company name from being reported in the media in a negative context. Companies realise that the public isn’t likely to remember who won the court case, but they are likely to remember that someone accused the company of negligence.

You talk about tort reform, what about police cops going up in judge-only trials or cops having their cases moved out of the city and heard in courts of cop friendly suburbs? We somehow don’t hear about that when we talk about tort reform.

capacitor, cops have nothing to do with torts - which are part of civil, not criminal, law.

I have no doubt that tort lawyers try to get their cases heard in front of judges who they believe will look favourably upon their clients case.

And I’m certainly aware of at least one defamation action which has been launched in Australia because our defamation laws are more advantageous to the plaintiff than those of the US (Geoffrey Robertson is one of the lawyers for the plaintiff in this case and as the allegedly defamatory comments were made on the internet, it remains to be seen whether our courts will rule that they have jurisdiction to hear the case).

It isn’t especially easy for either the accused or the prosecution to get the location of a criminal trial changed here unless there are sound legal principles at stake. I have no idea of how easy or difficult it is in the US.

Your jury system is also significantly different to ours (IIRC, it also varies from state to state) and I would be way out of my depth in trying to comment on it.

FTR capacitor, one of my big concerns about diversionary programmes is that the defendant must plead guilty in order to participate in them - effectively relieving the prosecution of any burden of proof.

It is not inconceivable that people who would not be found guilty by a court will plead guilty in order to ensure a non-custodial sentence rather than risk a possible gaol sentence.

Plenty. I’d hazard a guess that 25% of all suits are summarily dismissed, and many more have significant portions of the suit tossed out, even if some remain.

Cite, please? Also, ISTR that shoulder harnesses were pretty standard in military planes from the WWII period, which would tend to show that the manufacturers had a pretty good idea shoulder harnesses were important safety devices.

What’s your point? Appealing and losing costs you in fees plus the judgment, so which outcome would you prefer? Or are you about to go into ranting mode like some other people around here lately? That would be fun–you rarely see tirades against appellate lawyers.

Cite, please?

Because most of the stupidity and lack of common sense is within the system you’re trying to change! :wink:

You missed the final clause: and that “somebody” isn’t them!

Guys, I think it was valid for the OP to refer to “McDonald’s coffee” in quotations, and I question your challenging the specific facts in that case. Whatever the facts and outcome, it serves as a well-accepted shorthand reference for a personal injury liability case that involved at least some culpability by the plaintiff, and the initial award of sizeable punitive damages.

Re the OP, in my mind this brings up the whole debate of punitives. Assuming they are appropriate, should they be awarded to a particular named plaintiff? The recent tobacco case in a fine example. I am not aware of a preferable alternative.

Ok, well another reform would be to adopt a contributory negligence standard. Some, I think Alabama, Iowa and Virginia, states still use this. In short, if the plaintiff is at all responsible for the damage, they can recover nothing. I have googled, but can’t find any numbers to show if such a standard reduces the number of lawsuites. Perhaps a contributory negligence Doper can comment? (I think this is what Happyheathen wants in a tort system)

I should note that I have no idea how the tort system in Australia works, but presumably it is similar to the US?

Dunno if there’s ever been an actual suit brought against a ladder manufacturer, but there are good reasons for the warning signs on them:

  1. The manufacturer can’t force an understanding of basic safety (don’t hang from the little plastic shelf, etc.) onto people before they purchase their product, but they can arrange it so that anyone who has tried to use their ladder sees some basic safety warnings. This is obviously an attempt to reduce their liability, of course, but it’s the right way to do it (for an even better example, Ditch Witch machines have a big sign on the front blade that essentially says “touching this will kill you”).

  2. There are plenty of different sorts of ladders -cheap plastic or aluminum ones, good quality steel or fiberglass ones, various qualities of wood ladders, and so forth. If you don’t know the differences, or if you thought you could save a few bucks and get a cheap aluminum job that’s “just as good” as that fiberglass one, it’s the manufacturer’s last chance to inform you of the differences.

“A contributory negligence Doper”? Well, I did draft a couple of the Reproter’s Notes for the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Apportionment of Liability. Does that count?

Actually, I believe Virginia is the only state that still bars recovery entirely if the plaintiff is in any way negligent. Iowa most certainly does not, nor does Alabama (which is one of the most plaintiff-friendly jurisdictions in the country). I am unaware of any studies showing a relationship between number of lawsuits and the rule of contributory negligence, which is unsurprising given the large number of other factors that would have to be controlled for.


Dinsdale, a few years back it was “well-accepted shorthand” to refer to the “marriage trap,” that women over 30 were more likely to be struck by lightening than to find a husband. The only problem is that it wasn’t true. So, even if it was “well-accepted,” it wasn’t correct.

The same applies to the McDonald’s coffee case. And it is important, because “McDonald’s coffee” isn’t mere shorthand, but is used as the prime example of “what’s wrong with the American legal system today.” And if that decision wasn’t wrong, than part of the underpinnings of the argument are knocked away.


Sua - so you feel it would be preferable to refer to “personal injury or property damage lawsuits where there is some liability on behalf of plaintiff, yet plaintiff is awarded punitive damages assessed against defendant?”

I feel this is an instance where the case was so well publicized that reference to it - even if not entirely accurate in terms of the facts of that particular case - facilitates communication in other cases.

As I see it, the important elements for this type of discussion were all present in the McDonald’s case - whether as commonly misunderstood, or in the actual facts (as best as I understand them.)

  1. The defendant acted badly, and knew or should have known of potential harm or misunderstanding resulting from their actions.
    -coffee hotter than reasonably necessary, and knowledge of prior claims.

  2. Through action or inaction, the injured party was at least partially responsible for the existence or extent of their injury.
    -certainly she should not have expected injuries of the extent she incurred, but IMO popping the top of a cup of just ordered coffee held between your legs is asking for trouble.

  3. And the initial jury award appears to many folk to be far in excess of the actual injury.
    -yes, burns are very painful, and there is permanence, but how many millions? And tho the award was reduced on appeal, the initial award results in societal costs through the creation of public perception, and the very need for appellate litigation.

So, I understood the reference to “the McDonald’s case” to include all of this. As far as I am concerned, they could have just as easily referred to cigarette smokers’ suits, exploding Pintos, repainted luxury cars, or violinists being dragged under trains and losing a leg. And in the context of the OP, I would not assume they necessarily wanted to discuss tobacco company liability, car design, new car painting representations, or the value of a particular violinist’s limb. Was I mistaken as to the OP’s intent? Or did they actually indicate a desire to debate a mistaken perception of this particular case?

Finally, I find it hard to believe that you never rely upon fictional or exaggerated images in order to facilitate communication?