March 10, 1995 in City

System’s Checks, Balances Do Work Con-Tort Reform It Will Cast Chill Over Valid Suits.

Anne Windishar/Editorial Writer
 

Republicans rolled into town this year promising to make things better for the average citizen. They scoffed at Beltway insiders, sneered at the media elite, hammered away at the injustices plaguing middle America.

And in the meantime, they’re taking the Average Joe for a ride he may not survive.

The latest item in “Contract With America” to make it through the House of Representatives is so-called tort reform, aimed at ending frivolous, opportunistic lawsuits against beleaguered companies.

In reality, the bill gives Goliath an even bigger club to use to wallop David. The centerpiece “loser-pays” rule will cast a chill over valid suits against corporate biggies.

Here’s how it happens: Someone is injured because of a company’s product. She considers suing but, knowing the odds are against her because she’ll walk into the courtroom out-lawyered and out-spent, she’s unsure. If she decides to sue, and loses, she’ll have to pay the company’s legal fees. Even if she wins, she could wind up paying because the House bill considers you the loser if the jury award is less than an out-of-court settlement offer.

So who has the advantage? Not your average American.

Sure, people are outraged when they hear a jury awarded someone $2.9 million because she spilled McDonald’s too-hot coffee on herself. That outrage sweeps the nation, fueled by Gingrich’s gang; 81-year-old Stella Lieback is held up as the example of what’s wrong with America’s court system.

What people don’t tell you is that Lieback suffered second-degree burns. She spent a week in the hospital and required skin grafts to heal. And did you know McDonald’s had received more than 700 complaints about its coffee before Lieback’s accident and had made settlements of more than $500,000?

The postscript to Lieback’s story is a judge later reduced the amount to a more reasonable $480,000. The legal system’s checks and balances worked.

Yes, the system could use some fine tuning. But that’s not the job of the federal government. If Newt and his followers so strongly support states’ rights - as they profess to as they prepare to kill federal food programs - they should leave tort reform to the states. The little guy can hardly afford their help.

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The following fields overflowed: SUPCAT = EDITORIAL, COLUMN - From both sides

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