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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 wrongdoing.

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 Carolina.

"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.


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