Common sense and the law

Alan Duff

It’s no secret that a cup of steaming coffee is scalding hot, or that crackling electrical wires will shock you if you touch them. What is mind-boggling is how eager Americans are to sue for the slightest grievance or wrong they feel has been inflicted against them – often expecting extraneous monetary compensation for problems they may have caused themselves.
One of the most remarkable cases ever to appear in court began in 1992. A woman named Stella Liebeck spilled steaming hot McDonald’s coffee on her lap while in a car. The resulting burns caused her to be hospitalized for eight days while she suffered from third-degree burns.
In response, she sued McDonald’s in the now famous case Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants. A jury of peers awarded her $2.86 million, and it was only thanks to the judge that the money was decreased to $640,000.
While it was discovered that McDonald’s required their employees to keep the coffee stored in pots heated to 185 degrees, the amount of money won over this accident was more than enough to cover Liebeck’s lawyer fees and medical bills.
This lawsuit illustrates how easy it is for individuals to exaggerate their problems; in some cases the lawsuits approach the ridiculous. For example, according to ABC News, in 2004, two teenage girls were going from door to door giving out cookies. When they knocked on the door of Wanita Young and left cookies, Young suffered a panic attack and had to be hospitalized. When the girls learned of the incident they left an apology letter and offered to pay for the bill but Young refused and instead sued them and won $900.
It amazes me how eager Americans are to sue anyone who seems to even look at them in the wrong way, but lawyers are more than eager to meet the demand for sue-happy citizens. According to the American Bar Association, the United States has over a million practicing lawyers – more per capita than any other nation – and that number is increasing every year.
From restaurants to automobile manufacturers, the evidence shows that there are almost always more warning labels for products in the United States than any other country. Any heated beverage a person buys now has some variation of “warning: contents are hot.”
While some may argue that people cannot change, laws can. The way liability law is processed and used in the United States should be reviewed and assessed for these glaring flaws. Juries and judges should make an effort to ensure that lawyers are clear and give all the facts of the case. Plaintiffs should not be awarded millions of dollars for their carelessness.
If a person sues another over the loss of a $4,000 car, the jury should not award the person a million dollars. A control must be placed on the amount a person can be awarded for damages in these types of lawsuits.
A percentage-based cap on damages may be the best solution. A law should be introduced that states that no party will be forced to pay more than 1000 percent of the total cost of all damages inflicted, thereby insuring that these lawsuits do not get out of hand.
While this number may need tweaking, a cap would decrease the number of American lawsuits wherein a plaintiff pursues a verdict for reasons of greed rather than for justice.