Former White House correspondent and political columnist Margaret Carlson recently wrote about tort reform on Bloomberg.com. She uses real life examples to demonstrate how tort reform is really nothing more than a corporate protection racket that prevents individuals from holding wrongdoers financially accountable for their actions while failing to meet its goal of reducing health care costs. One example she uses involves Stella Lieback, the infamous “Hot Coffee lady”. She became the symbol for Tort reform when a jury awarded her a large sum of money after she spilled a cup of McDonald’s hot coffee on her lap.
Tort Reformers did a very good job of distorting the facts to make the public believe Ms Lieback’s personal injury case had no merit. However, Ms. Carlson helped set the record straight. She pointed to the true facts as outlined in HBO’s “Hot Coffee” documentary on the subject.
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For example, contrary to popular belief, Ms. Lieback was not driving the vehicle and the car was not moving. In addition, McDonald’s was serving the coffee at a temperature it knew would burn human skin and cause severe permanent scarring. In fact, many people had been burned and complained to McDonald’s before Ms. Lieback. McDonald’s kept selling the coffee at the super heated temperature because people liked the taste.
In Ms. Lieback’s case, she was hospitalized for eight days with third degree burns and received skin grafts on 6% of her body. Even then she did not sue right away. Instead she simply asked McDonald’s to help her pay her medical bills. The company refused offering her only $800.
In response to the McDonald’s Coffee case, some states, including Texas and Nebraska, instituted liability caps. The caps are so severe that they have actually caused the opposite of what they were intended to do. For example, one Nebraska personal injury suit involved a child born with brain damage because a routine ultrasound was not done in a timely manner. A jury awarded the family $5.65 million to help care for the boy over his lifetime. The liability cap in the state meant they only received $1.25 million. Being unable to pay for his ongoing medical care, the family turned to Medicaid. So ultimately the public is paying for the child’s care, rather than the party responsible for his injury.
Texas reforms have also not accomplished their stated goal of reducing the cost of seeing a doctor. Seeing a doctor in Texas is no cheaper than seeing one in a state without liability caps as tort reform advocates would have you believe. In reality, studies show Texas has some of the highest medical costs and lowest quality care in America.