The Stella Awards: Myths Driving Tort Reform

Myths Driving Tort Reform

Harmful Tort ReformWork with Tampa’s skilled Tort Claim attorneys!

Chances are, you’ve heard something about that “hot coffee spill” lawsuit against McDonalds. It’s often held up as an example of what’s wrong with the jury system. Like so many people, maybe you’ve criticized the case – or, perhaps, even laughed at the verdict.

We’d be willing to bet that, if you knew all the facts, you’d agree the case was no laughing matter.

There was certainly nothing funny about the lawsuit to Stella Liebeck, the woman who filed it more than a decade ago. In 1992, Ms. Liebeck purchased a cup of coffee at a McDonalds drive-through window. Her grandson, who was driving, pulled the car forward and then stopped so that his grandmother could add cream and sugar to her cup. As Ms. Liebeck removed the lid, the coffee – which was dispensed to her at a heat of over 180 degrees – spilled into her lap, almost instantaneously causing third-degree burns over six percent of her body, including in an undeniably sensitive area. Ms. Liebeck spent eight days in the hospital, having to endure painful skin grafting and debridement. All she asked of McDonalds was for it to pay $20,000 for her medical bills. But McDonalds refused – despite the fact that the fast-food giant was on notice of more than 700 claims of coffee burns to its patrons, over a ten-year period, including many that were similar to Ms. Liebeck’s. The jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $200,000, but reduced its award to $160,000, finding that Ms. Liebeck was 20% responsible for her injury. She was also awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages, but that amount was reduced to $480,000 by the court. After trial, the parties entered into a secret settlement to avoid an appeal.

Shame on McDonalds – and shame on those who don’t want you to know that full story. Because of overzealous “tort reform” efforts spurred by large companies who want to limit their own liability, Ms. Leibeck’s trauma is often reduced to a punch line in any joke about frivolous lawsuits. When the story is regurgitated, the full extent of her damages and her early offer of settlement are deleted, leaving only a bare-bones “hot coffee: want $2 million” meme. This outrageous oversimplification is then hoisted up as a reason to prevent these sorts of lawsuits from being filed in the future.

Enter, stage right, The Stella Awards.

Feeding the outrage over “greedy victims” forcing others to pay for their own “stupidity,” The Stella Awards stepped up and, from 2002-2007, presented annual “awards” to the most ridiculous lawsuits they could find.

The Stella Awards are most famous for a persistent chain-mailed list of fury-inducing cases – ones that even their own official website labels as bogus fabrications. These fake cases range from the mother who successfully sued a furniture store after she tripped over her own toddler, to the older woman who blithely decided that “cruise control” meant “auto-pilot,” and many other fake cases that have entered into the realm of urban legend. These pure-fiction stories of rewarded idiocy are too frequently circulated – even, most disappointingly, by news organizations – as factual proof that our system of civil justice has gone off the rails and needs “reform.” A website perusal of the six years of actual “Stella Awards” reveals a collection of lawsuits that were mostly dismissed, withdrawn, or listed with no resolution.

It’s important to know the essential facts about any given case before you join the uninformed chorus criticizing it. Our jury system is not infallible, and juries can and do make mistakes. Far more often than not, however, juries – the people we entrust to actually hear and weigh the facts that the public often overlooks – get it right. At Wagner, McLaughlin & Whittemore, we support the rights of all potential plaintiffs to have their cases heard, and we trust the judges and juries in Florida to fairly evaluate each case after hearing all the facts.

If you have been injured by someone else’s negligence – or by their willful disregard for your safety, just as McDonalds willfully disregarded Ms. Leibeck’s safety – contact us today for a free consultation. We’d be happy to help.

teen boy smoking cigarette

Teens Use E-cigarettesInjured by an e-cigarette? Contact us now!

Tobacco use is illegal for teenagers and young children – but that doesn’t keep cigarettes out of their hands. Worse, children and teens are becoming more and more drawn to e-cigarettes, with their attendant exposure to nicotine and often worse chemicals.

E-cigarettes are touted by the industry to be a safer alternative to smoking, as well as a way to help smokers reduce their dependence on tobacco cigarettes. By offering cartridges with decreasing doses of nicotine, e-cigarettes are an attractive option for those seeking to quit smoking. A close examination of the e-cigarette market, however, shows that e-cigarette use has increased among teens – many of whom have never smoked regular cigarettes.

Last April, the Centers for Disease Control reported that “e-cigarette use among middle and high school students tripled from 2013 to 2014,” and that e-cigarettes are now affecting over two million students.  Warning that any nicotine use is dangerous for the developing brains of children, the CDC is worried that this trend is causing lasting harm and will ultimately lead to long-term tobacco use among students who now “vape.” This prediction is backed up by the sobering statistic that “about 90 percent of all smokers first tried cigarettes as teens; and that about three of every four teen smokers continue into adulthood.”

The American Lung Association is also concerned about e-cigarettes, in part because the chemicals used in each brand of vapor can vary widely, and because there is insufficient evidence to conclusively show whether they are, indeed, a safe alternative to regular cigarettes, especially when nicotine is involved in such varying – and largely unregulated – amounts. In the absence of FDA oversight, the ALA concludes that “there is much to be concerned about,” especially as marketing targets youth with candy flavors and the glamorization of e-cigarettes.

In Florida, legislators won a victory in the battle against e-cigarette use among teens with the passing of Florida Senate Bill 224. In 2014, Governor Rick Scott signed the bill into law, banning the sale of all e-cigarettes to minors, joining many other states that have already done so.

At Wagner, McLaughlin & Whittemore, we hope all parents will work to avoid exposing their children to e-cigarettes and educate their teens and pre-teens on the dangers – real and possible – of any nicotine habit. If you or your loved one has been harmed by e-cigarettes, you may have options. Contact us today for a free consultation.


Artificial Intelligence

Artificial IntelligenceWork with experienced Tampa lawyers who embrace new technologies!

Our country is founded on laws. Thousands of laws help citizens get along with one another, resolve their conflicts, and promote a national system of justice. These thousands of laws – written and passed by state and federal legislators – are then interpreted in yet even more thousands of opinions by judges. Judicial opinions comprise what is known as case law. While legislators craft basic laws intended to reach everyone, judges help us understand how to apply a certain law to a specific set of facts, particularly when disputes arise.

For example, we are all guaranteed “due process” of law, but the U.S. Constitution doesn’t spell out exactly what due process entails. To understand due process completely, one must read through hundreds of opinions on individual cases to see how that constitutional protection has been interpreted and applied. To predict how a judge might decide questions of due process in a current case, one must understand, among many other issues,the difference between precedent that is controlling and precedent that is merely persuasive.

If that all sounds confusing, you might start to understand what lawyers do for three years in law school and beyond. Even after law school, most lawyers spend years strengthening their legal research muscles by pouring through constitutional provisions, statutes, and case law and learning how to apply that body of precedent to the individual cases they face in their chosen practice area.

Now, several companies are trying to make that legal research easier.

A recent report in The Globe and Mail – a Canadian newspaper – describes a computer program named Ross that was built on the IBM Watson platform. (Watson is famous for winning Jeopardy in 2011.) Ross started as a class project at the University of Toronto as part of an IBM-sponsored contest among ten different schools, all using the Watson program. Ross’s main function is to respond to legal questions by researching through the thousands of laws and court decisions and producing a possible answer that would apply that knowledge to a current case. Though it is focused largely on federal bankruptcy law at present, Ross has already been hired at Dentons – the largest law firm in the world – and at some U.S. law firms, where it is currently going through pilot program testing.

If Ross or one of his competitorsproves successful, it could revolutionize legal research – which can be one of the most time-consuming parts of a law practice – and speed up every part of a lawyer’s workload that relies on research. Legal writing, counseling with clients, and negotiations could take less time, opening up more time for each attorney to take on new clients.

While such advanced computer programs will neverreplace attorneys, at the Tampa, Florida law firm of Wagner, McLaughlin & Whittemore, we celebrate any technology that helps us work smarter for our clients. Along with legal research – whether computer-assisted or not –we will always draw from our own vast knowledge of personal injury, malpractice, and whistleblower case law to serve our clients. Contact us today to see how our knowledge can help you.

helping hands of the Hillsborough County Bar Association

Bar AssociationThere are dozens of statewide and local bar associations in Florida — meaning organizations of lawyers grouped by geography, demography, or court practice – but what they do is often a mystery to clients and others who happen not to be lawyers. Based in Tampa, Florida, the Hillsborough County Bar Association (HCBA) serves the members of the association and public by providing training, referrals, and opportunities to serve the less advantaged. Its mission statement emphasizes its dedication to community service: “…to inspire and promote respect for the law and the justice system through service to the legal profession and to the community.” Below are just some of the functions the HCBA serves:

Standards of Professionalism

Though The Florida Bar is responsible for establishing and enforcing Florida’s Rules of Professional Conduct, the HCBA took the commitment to professionalism one step further by proposing its own list of Standards of Professionalism. These standards promote cooperation and civility among attorneys as well as fairness and efficiency within the court system.

Lawyer Referral Service

The HCBA provides a lawyer referral service to any member of the public who is seeking a quality attorney. Clients using this service enjoy a reduced or even waived consultation fee, along with a free referral to an alternate lawyer if needed.

Hillsborough County Bar Foundation

This charitable arm of the HCBA gives member attorneys the opportunity to serve the poor, disabled, and disadvantaged who need legal assistance. Selected in 2009 to manage the statewide Residential Mortgage Foreclosure Mediation Program, the foundation continued to run the program locally even after the statewide program ended. Each year, the foundation hosts a Law and Liberty Dinner to help fund local legal-related charities. WM has been pleased to be a sponsor of the Law and Liberty Dinner for many years.

Continuing Legal Education (CLE)

HCBA attorneys have access to CLE classes on a wide variety of topics, and even open these classes up to interested members of the public.

At Wagner, McLaughlin & Whittemore, we’re proud that our attorneys have long been leaders in the community and in the Hillsborough County Bar Association. Currently, WM Partner Kevin McLaughlin is serving as President-Elect, and WM Partner Jason Whittemore serves on its Young Lawyers Division Board of Directors. Involvement in our local bar association is one more way we become educated on important legal issues, network with other attorneys and experts, and to give back to our great Tampa Bay community. If you are in need of a Tampa, Florida personal injury attorney, contact us today for a free consultation.