Super-Hot McDonald's Coffee: Use Caution in Changing the Legal System
Caution: Super Hot Coffee
Leon Panetta With Bill Clinton
Poor Stella Liebeck!
Stella was minding her own business one day when she decided to stop at McDonald's for a cup of coffee. The incredibly hot coffee spilled, scalding her severely. She sued and won a substantial monetary award.
Stella's $2.7 million damage award, which attracted so much national attention, was later reduced, incidentally, to below $500,000 on appeal. I wonder how many people know, or care, about that!
Big Splash in Newspapers
Now Stella is frequently held up as an example by Republican conservatives who have been trying for many years to protect big business from the multi-million dollar "product liability" lawsuits and punitive damages that always make a big splash in the newspapers. (They're not such great news stories when, months or years later, the huge awards are overturned or, often, reduced significantly.)
The truth is that the coffee served by many fast-food establishments is unconscionably hot, and the kind of injuries Stella suffered were not only likely but inevitable.
Conservatives would prefer, no doubt, that people like Stella be given a coupon for a free hamburger rather than have a legally constituted jury decide -- after a thorough review of the facts -- what a fair settlement would be.
Congress presently is in the throes of a battle over the revamping of the nation's civil legal system, including House bills pushed through by the GOP last week to make it easier to defend product liability and securities fraud cases, and reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits. It's all part of Newt Gingrich's infamous "Contract With America."
The Republican idea is to save money by putting a federal limit on punitive damages in most lawsuits, including an artificial $250,000 cap on pain and suffering awards in medical malpractice cases; losers would be forced to pay the legal fees of the winners under certain conditions.
The approved bills were immediately called "flawed" by two Senators, Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who are pushing their own bill, backed by Connecticut Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Christopher Dodd, which is more likely to escape a Clinton veto.
Seeking Simple Solutions
Once again Gingrich, Sen. Bob Dole, and other Republicans pushing for approval of the "contract," are seeking simple solutions to complex problems. Fortunately, cooler heads are likely to prevail in the Senate, and many of those mindless "contract" proposals will fail or at least be moderated.
Under the Grand Old Party's multi-million budget-cutting proposals, the nation's poorest people will suffer the most severe consequences of the "contract" while tax cuts for the wealthy are given priority attention by the GOP.
White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, generally a quiet, soft-spoken gentleman, has described some of the Republicans' proposed budget cuts as "irresponsible" and "mean spirited."
There's no question that some changes should be considered, but Congress should put aside the escalating political buffoonery and at least try to apply reason and perhaps a little caution and wisdom.
Meanwhile President Clinton reportedly has been seen recently looking all over the White House for his veto pen.
I wrote this column as a "My View" for The Hour newspaper of Norwalk, Conn., on March 18, 1995. I now write my views on a wide variety of topics on HubPages.