Counsel That You Can Trust & Depend On

Tort Reform – Mcdonald’s Hot Coffee Case & Caps on Medical Malpractice Damages

Guy DiMartino Oct. 31, 2014

Michigan City Indiana medical malpractice lawyer discusses recent HBO special “Hot Coffee”.

On Monday, June 27, HBO began airing a powerful new documentary film called Hot Coffee by first-time director Susan Saladoff. This documentary shows that corporate America and insurance companies orchestrated the “lawsuit crisis” and “tort reform” movement. The name of the documentary comes from the infamous and widely misunderstood “McDonald's Coffee Case,” which most people believe involved a greedy coffee drinker who spilled hot coffee on herself and won millions of dollars for essentially no reason. I would say that in one in two juries that I pick, somebody in the jury panel brings up “tort reform”, “frivolous lawsuits”, and the “McDonald's Coffee Case.”

In the film, you will hear from Stella's family, hear from the jurors in the case, see the disturbing images of her actual burns and the multiple skin grafts that she had to endure. You will learn that McDonald's had over 700 complaints of scolding burns before Stella was injury, and you will discover that the punitive damage portion of the verdict was significantly reduced by the judge despite McDonald's callous behavior. When you listen to the jurors explanation of the reason why they awarded 2.7 million dollars in punitive damages, you will see that the jury was not a run-a-way jury. The jury was thoughtful and came up with that number because that is what McDonald's earned in two days of coffee sales. Did you know that the judge reduced the $2.7 million verdict to somewhere around $500,000?

In this film, you will learn that the insurance industry and corporate America used this case as a sounding board and poster child for their own greed and agenda. You may wonder why you were duped by this misinformation. But you won't be alone. Pushing out false descriptions of anecdotal jury verdicts like this, intended to outrage the reader or listener, and this tactic has been the cornerstone of the “tort reform” movement for years.

One heart wrenching story chronicled in the film is the Gourley family from Nebraska. The Gourley's story should hit home with folks in Indiana, because like Indiana – Nebraska has a hard cap on damages of 1.25 million in medical malpractice suit, the same as Indiana.

In this case, Ms. Gourley was pregnant with twins and late in her pregnancy she was concerned that her boys were not as active as they were before. So goes to her obstetrician, who tells her she is fine and she should just come home and rest. The next week, Ms. Gourley sees here obstetrician's partner who performs and ultrasound and tells her that both boys were in one placenta and there was very little amniotic fluid around one of the boys. He sent Ms. Gourley to the hospital for an emergency c-section.

The standard of care, required the mother to be operated on in short order; however, Ms. Gourley waited in the OR pre-op for two hours and during this time, her son was deprived of much need oxygen. He suffered severe brain damage.The case went to trial and the jury arrived at a damage award of $5.6 million. Most of the jury award was for non-economic damages, which include future surgical, medical, and hospital bills as well as paying for the multiple physical therapists that the child would need as he grew up. Very little money was awarded for the non-economic or soft “pain and suffering” damages.

After the trial, the judge reduced the award to $1.25 million under the law. The Gourleys' child is now 16 years old and the State has been paying for his medical care for years because money received by the Gourley's was long gone paying for medical care.

Indiana has a similar cap and medical malpractice damages just like Nebraska. So, a case like the Gourleys begs the question, does a hard cap on damages really help Indiana's residents or just the doctors? You see, people who are seriously injured because of medical malpractice will never realize enough money to actually pay for their medical care in the future and the burden is shifted to Medicaid and Medicare.

So the next time you hear somebody say we have a lawsuit crisis or they bring up the McDonald's case, just suggest that they spend an hour or so and watch Hot Coffee , it will certainly provide the rest of the story.

Indiana medical malpractice law is complex. If you have any questions regarding Indiana medical malpractice call our office.