I’m not unsympathetic to the cause of tort reform in the United States (at the very least, I believe the “loser pays” principle should apply, as it does in most Canadian cases). That said, many horror stories about the American civil justice system are exaggerated beyond recognition, as shown by America’s legal journal of record:
…No doubt you’ve heard of the lady that sued McDonald’s because she spilled some hot coffee in her lap while driving. What a moron! you might have thought. How stupid do you have to be to not know coffee is hot? Americans these days! Blaming everyone but themselves for their mistakes!
It turns out there’s a lot more to the story. First of all, the hot coffee wasn’t just uncomfortable and embarrassing, it gave her third degree burns over six percent of her body, which required fucking skin grafts. You can see the burns yourself if you’re not squeamish.
Secondly, coffee served at that temperature (180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit) will give a person third-degree burns in two to seven seconds, while home-coffee brewers normally serve coffee at much lower temperatures (130 two 140 degrees) which won’t immediately burn you. Yes, Starbucks and other joints do serve coffee at the hotter temperatures — because some customers prefer it — but then again, they get sued for it also. Thirdly, she attempted to settle for $20,000 at one point, and McDonald’s refused, which is when she started getting cranky.
…But she has to take some responsibility, right? She may not have been driving, but she was trying to open the lid in her lap so she could add cream and sugar. That’s kind of careless, isn’t it? Why couldn’t the jury see that?
Well, they did. That’s why the compensatory damages portion ($200,000) was reduced by 20 percent, because they ruled it was 20 percent her fault.
As a rule, if a multi-million dollar (or even multi-thousand dollar) lawsuit sounds too crazy to be true, there’s almost certainly an important detail or three being left out of the story.