Thursday, November 30, 2006

Shutting the Courthouse Door on Real, Injured Plaintiffs

Most Texas trial lawyers can attest that it's harder and harder to get some plaintiffs' cases to court these days. This is particularly true in cases involving victims of medical malpractice or homeowners who discover construction problems with their houses. These types of cases, among others, have been affected drastically by recent changes in the law which have the effect of "closing the courthouse doors" on injured parties.

And as much as it pains me that meritorious consumer cases are being shut out of the courthouse, what really galls me is the huge number of creditors' lawsuits which are now being filed by the truckload across the state. These suits are often filed by debt-collection firms on behalf of huge retailers and credit card companies, and they use heavy-handed scare tactics to wring out a few dollars from debtors who can't afford to hire lawyers. Intimidated by being sued and unable to defend themselves, many debtors get sucker-punched with default judgments that can haunt them for years.

I'm not advocating that creditors should not be allowed to pursue legitimate debts, or that debtors should not pay what they legitimately owe. The problem I see is that too many of these suits are being filed against the wrong people, or for the wrong amount, or have some other major defect. Twice in as many months I've had people come to me after being sued for debts that were not even theirs. Another time a lady came to me after being sued for a debt that she had been diligently paying off before the original creditor sold the debt to a "Rambo" collection firm.

It's a shame that the big bully corporations and questionable debt-collectors are now clogging the courts with these dubious suits, particularly now when so many truly injured folks are kept out of the courthouse. Courthouses exist so that the little guy can take on Goliath, not the other way around.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

McDonald's Hot Coffee and Other Myths

Rarely does a week pass without someone forwarding me an email complaining of "frivolous" lawsuits. You've probably seen them, too. They usually reference the so-called "Stella Awards," in dubious honor of 79-year old Stella Liebeck. Stella was severly burned when scalding hot coffee spilled in her lap and she sued McDonald's for $2.7 million. Most people hear only this and automatically assume it was a frivolous suit filed by a greedy plaintiff. Unfortunately, few seem to know the true facts about Stella's case, such as:
  • Stella was severely injured, suffering third degree burns to her legs and genitals which required hospitalization and multiple skin grafts;
  • Her doctor testified that her injury was one of the worst scald burns he had ever seen;
  • She asked McDonald's to simply pay for her medical treatment, but they refused;
  • McDonald's kept its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees, a temperature which by its own admission made it unfit for consumption (hot beverages are typically served from 130 to 150 degrees);
  • Spilled coffee at that temperature causes third degree burns in 2 to 7 seconds;
  • McDonald's had been aware of the risks of serving super-hot coffee for over 10 years;
  • Over 700 people had been burned previously by its coffee; and
  • The jury's assessment of $2.7 million in punitive damages representing merely two days' worth of McDonald's coffee sales, and the trial judge reduced this amount to $480,000.

Sound frivolous? So the next time one of these emails pops up in your inbox, consider replying to the sender and giving them the real facts. After all, just like Stella Liebeck, that person may someday need a personal injury lawyer, too.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Too Many Safety Violations = Too Many Truck Wrecks

When prosecuting truck wreck cases, we frequently find evidence of various safety violations by either the trucking company or the truck driver or both. Falsified logbooks and hours-of-service violations, vehicles and equipment with mechanical problems, and speeding are just some of the violations that are commonly seen in these cases. Often victims of trucking accidents are left to wonder why these problems are not caught sooner, before they lead to wrecks. Needless to say, there is much room for improvement.
An excellent investigative series in the Dallas Morning News led reporters Gregg Jones and Doug Swanson to this conclusion: "The political clout of the trucking lobby and of big retailers has helped block tougher laws to police the business. As a result, industry experts and watchdog groups say, untold legions of truckers work unsafe hours, or operate faulty equipment that inspectors fail to curb, or continue driving despite numerous traffic violations, or wipe out innocent people who try to share the road. "
Jones and Swanson also report that deregulation of interstate shipping, competition among trucking companies, economic pressure on drivers, and shrinking federal and state law enforcement budgets have all played a role in making our roads more dangerous.
Left alone, the trucking industry is not going to clean itself up, despite the many carriers and drivers who operate professionally and safely. Average citizens must demand more from our lawmakers: More meaningful oversight of the industry, more funds for enforcement, and more dangerous trucks taken off our roads.