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Tort Reform Exposed: What This Really Means For Personal Injury Victims

August 16, 2015 By John Torgenson

The term “tort reform” is often thrown around in the media.  However, people generally do not understand just how serious of a threat it poses to the individual rights of Arizona citizens, Arizona personal injury clients, and their personal injury attorneys.  A “tort” is often defined as a “civil wrong” (as opposed to a “criminal wrong”).  Common examples of tort actions include car crashes, a defective product that injures someone and medical malpractice lawsuits.  Thus, “tort reform” is legislation aimed at limiting an individual’s rights to recover when someone else hurts them.  At Torgenson Law, we devote 100% of our practice to representing clients injured by the tortious acts of another person or entity.

At its most basic level, tort reform limits the amount of monetary damages that a personal injury client (a victim of a tort) can recover, either through arbitrary “caps” on limits on damages and/or limiting what type of conduct is considered a “tort.”  This includes limiting the amount of compensation a personal injury victim can recover even in the most horrific personal injury cases where people are permanently injured or die.  Some states “soften” the impact by holding that only pain and suffering damages are subject to the damages cap, and a personal injury client can still recover his medical expenses and/or lost wages independent of the tort reform cap on damages.  The net effect is that some personal injury clients are simply not sufficiently compensated when injured by another person or entity.

Many of us have watched Hot Coffee, the story about McDonald’s serving coffee that was too hot, knowing its coffee was too hot, and continuing to serve it anyways.  In that case, an elderly woman, Stella Liebeck, was savagely burned by a scalding hot cup of coffee served by the fast food conglomerate.  Her injuries were so severe that she required skin grafts.  The jury in that case awarded Ms. Liebeck $200,000.00 in compensatory damages (damages meant to make the person “whole” after the incident) and $2.7 million in punitive damages (damages meant to punish the wrongdoer and deter similar future behavior).  The sad part of the Hot Coffee case is that the trial court judge reduced the victim’s total damage award to $640,000.00 and the parties eventually settled for a confidential amount prior to an appeal.

Proponents of tort reform claim that it will decrease “frivolous” lawsuits (such as the Hot Coffee case, considered by tort reform proponents to be “frivolous”), increase judicial efficiency and benefit corporations and insurance companies that are often exposed to large verdicts.  Watch the Hot Coffee documentary and decide for yourself whether Ms. Liebeck’s lawsuit was frivolous.  Better yet, this 12-minute video by the New York Times included in the following link illustrates why Ms. Liebeck’s story is so misunderstood:

Here are four little-known facts about the Hot Coffee case:

1. Ms. Liebeck was not a litigious woman.  In fact, she initially asked McDonald’s only to compensate her for her medical bills, which were $10,000.00.  It was only after McDonald’s offered to pay a mere $800.00 that Ms. Liebeck filed a personal injury lawsuit.

2. Contrary to popular belief, Ms. Liebeck was not driving her car when the coffee burned her.  She was parked and in the passenger seat of her vehicle, while her grandson was in the driver’s seat.

3. Ms. Liebeck was burned over 16% of her body.  Some of these burns were third degree burns.

4. Finally, in the nine years before Ms. Liebeck’s injuries, over 700 people claimed that McDonald’s hot coffee had burned them.

Tort reform is directly adverse to basic individual rights.  It largely benefits the person or entity accused of wrongdoing by placing additional burdens on personal injury clients to prove his case.  If a personal injury client succeeds at trial, then some portions of his damages are capped by statute.

Fortunately, Arizona personal injury law remains on the opposite end of tort reform.  The Arizona State Constitution, Article 2, § 31 prohibits the State legislature from limiting personal injury damages:

No law shall be enacted in this state limiting the amount of damages to be recovered for causing the death or injury to any person . . .

This year, however, Arizona’s staunch stance on tort reform took a hit when Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed House Bill (“HB”) 2603. HB 2603 forces personal injury victims suffering from asbestos-related illnesses to produce sworn statements of each and every asbestos-related claim they have previously made, or intend to make.  In addition, under HB 2603, a corporation being sued for asbestos-related injuries has the right to motion the Court for permission to delay proceedings if it believes the injured person has legal recourse with an asbestos-injury trust propagated by various corporations.

While this is not a per se cap on personal injury damages, it encumbers personal injury clients suffering from asbestos-related illnesses, and allows wrongdoers to delay these lawsuits.

Call Torgenson Law to Schedule a Free Consultation

We must all be aware of the parameters of tort reform and how it affects personal injury victims.  If you or someone you know were injured, call Torgenson Law today.  We are a team of aggressive Arizona personal injury lawyers that are ready to fight for you.

John Torgenson portrait

John Torgenson

After high school, John attended the University of Utah, graduating in 2001. John then attended his dream school, Notre Dame Law School, where he graduated, with honors, in 2004. John is licensed to fight in court for real people in the State of Arizona, the United States Federal District Court of Arizona, and the 9th Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.

Before establishing what is now Torgenson Law, John practiced in the litigation group at Fennemore Craig, the oldest law firm in Arizona, and one of the largest firms in the Southwest. Having practiced at Fennemore Craig in both the defense and plaintiff’s practice areas gives John a complete perspective of the litigation process, and valuable insight into how to efficiently and effectively advance his clients’ interests. His unique and balanced background enhances his credibility with defense lawyers, insurers, and defendants as well as with judges and arbitrators.