Keep Our Families SafeA Few Truths About Our Legal System and Protecting Consumers

Since it is full-blown campaign season, we are all hearing a lot of overheated rhetoric on our legal system and how it serves the American public. Let's consider a few facts.
 
An e-mail circulating on the Internet describes cases allegedly vying for the annual “Stella” award for the most "frivolous" lawsuit in the United States. The cases nominated for “Stella” awards—mockingly named for Stella Liebeck, the McDonald’s coffee plaintiff—are outrageous, but they aren’t real. They’re modern-day urban legends: stories everyone “knows to be true” and “heard from a reliable source” but that never include an actual case name or citation.

Nonpartisan, professional debunkers have concluded that “all of the entries in the list are fabrications” and that “a search for news stories about each of these cases failed to turn up anything.”

The McDonald’s coffee case and others that have drawn media attention have also been distorted in order to encourage negative public perception of the legal system. A citizen jury heard the facts and made a decision. That's how the system is supposed to work.
 
The truth is that the woman in the McDonald's case didn't want to go to trial - McDonald's did. The company gambled and lost. 
 
What the jury heard was that the woman in the McDonald’s coffee case was 78, suffered third-degree burns, was in the hospital for three weeks, and needed skin grafts. During discovery, McDonald’s produced documents showing more than 700 claims from people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992, and that the company knew its coffee was hot enough to burn through all layers of skin. 
 
Everyone should be responsible for his or her own wrongdoing—corporations as much as individuals. When a company’s products harm someone or when workplace conditions make employees chronically ill, that company should compensate the injured person for the harm it’s caused.

In the civil justice system, individuals bring lawsuits without government interference. Citizen juries - you, your families, your friends, neighbors and co-workers - allow ordinary Americans to hold more powerful wrongdoers accountable and prevent them from causing future harm.
 
Medical malpractice is another area where interfering with individual and jury rights clearly doesn't work. Advocates of limiting patients' rights insist that capping jury awards for medical malpractice is the best way to lower doctors’ insurance premiums. But so-called “reformers” can’t show that caps work, because they don't.

The fact is that, on average, doctors in states with caps have slightly higher medical malpractice insurance premiums than doctors in states which don't restrict jury awards for injured patients.
 
While those who want to limit the legal rights of American families claim that personal injury lawsuits are clogging the courts in a "litigation explosion", the facts prove otherwise.
 
When it comes to so-called “frivolous lawsuits,” the truth is that the lawsuits “clogging” the courts are businesses suing businesses, not legitimate cases filed by individuals injured through no fault of their own by the negligence or willfulness of others.
 
According to the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), the number of civil trials dropped by 47% between 1992 and 2001. The number of tort (personal injury) cases decreased by 31.8% during the same period. The numbers of automobile cases dropped 15%, premises liability 52.1%, medical malpractice 14.2% and product liability by 76%.
 
The National Center for State Courts reported that tort (personal injury) filings by individuals are steadily decreasing while contract cases are greatly increasing. Tort filings have declined 4% since 1993. Contract filings, which are more likely to involve businesses suing businesses, rose by 21% over the same period.
 
The fact is that when juries speak, companies listen: Because of civil justice verdicts, children’s pajamas are no longer flammable, medical devices and auto fuel systems have been redesigned, and farm equipment and factory machinery include safety guards.
 
Limiting the rights of individuals and juries does not achieve justice or improve our legal system. It never has. It never will.