Tort reform efforts
may cause legislative splits
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report
FEB. 9, 2003 - - Whenever people are complaining about the need
to rein in runaway lawsuits and reform the legal system, just about
the first case many bring up is the famous McDonald's coffee case.
They say it was ridiculous for a woman to get $3 million for spilling
hot coffee in her lap. They gripe about a legal system gone mad.
In the next couple of weeks, a coalition of more than 40 businesses
and organizations, including the SC Chamber of Commerce and SC Medical
Association, will begin pushing an effort to reform the tort system,
the legal structure that protects the rights of people injured by
defective products, toxic substances, medical malpractice and corporate
The debate will pit big and small businesses against lawyers. It
will inflame passions in the General Assembly. Tort-reform advocates
say they're not going to bash lawyers because what they want is
some reason in the system. Lawyers say they're going to stand up
for consumers and the rights of the little guy. Even though both
sides say they don't want the debate to get ugly, more than likely,
it's going to get ugly.
Before fiery speechmaking and loose rhetoric begin, people should
get facts and use them as the basis for arguments. The McDonald's
coffee case provides the perfect starting point.
In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, N.M., was sitting
in the passenger seat of her grandson's car, which he had stopped
so she could put sugar and cream in her McDonald's coffee. The cup
was between her legs. As she pulled the top from the cup, coffee
spilled onto her groin area.
Her doctor said she received the most serious third-degree scald
burns he had ever seen. She was hospitalized for eight days. She
had skin grafts, scarring and disability for more than two years,
according to the Center for Justice and Democracy.
Ms. Liebeck offered to settle the case for $20,000. McDonald's
said no. It went to court. A jury awarded $200,000 in damages to
compensate Ms. Liebeck for her injuries and $2.7 million in punitive
damages because of McDonald's "callous conduct."
Here are the parts most people don't ever get - - the compensatory
damages were reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Ms. Liebeck
to be 20 percent at fault. And more interestingly, the trial judge
reduced the punitive damage award from $2.7 million to $480,000
- - three times the other damages. Even more interesting: McDonald's
and Ms. Liebeck then entered secret settlement proceedings, which
indicates they likely settled for less.
"You don't have a runaway jury system [in South Carolina,],"
said Columbia lawyer Luther J. Battiste III, president-elect of
the SC Trial Lawyers Association. "When you have a verdict
that's too high, there is a process in place to go to a judge and
have it reduced."
Cam Crawford, executive director of the new pro-tort reform South
Carolina First, said the tort system needs to be reformed because,
among other things, the possibility of large jury verdicts against
companies is driving away businesses that want to locate in South
"We want the victims to be fairly compensated, but at the
same time we don't want to lose Wal-Marts in Hampton County and
we certainly don't want to lose business to Mississippi and Alabama"
which have imposed tort caps, Crawford said.
But more importantly, he says, the tort system is making the cost
of medical malpractice insurance go sky-high - - so high that some
doctors are deciding to get out of the practice of medicine. Lawyers
counter insurance rates aren't high because of the tort system,
but because insurance companies have suffered at the stock market
in the economic downturn.
Other Southern states have started to cap damages in tort-related
lawsuits. California capped medical malpractice awards 20 years
ago. In this session with the GOP in control of the SC House, Senate
and governor's mansion, it's likely some kind of tort reform will
occur. Let's just hope whatever happens is fair to all.