Tort reform has been a big issue for the Republicans and conservatives in general. It's one of the big issues in their ephemeral plan to fix what's wrong with health care. Caps on awards would reduce the cost of malpractice insurance and therefore bring down the overall cost of healthcare. Now I think that's a fart in the wind compared to the whole problem, but it IS an issue.
I just saw an HBO documentary that deals with an issue that I used to use in teaching my physics class. You might have heard the story of the old lady that became a millionaire because she was a spaz and spilled hot coffee in her lap after buying it from McDonald's and then driving with her cup between her legs. It's coffee, dumbass, it's supposed to be hot. For fuck's sake, how bad could the burns be? Certainly not $2,900,000 bad. There was a Seinfeld episode about it. There were hosts of editorial cartoons about it. Late night talk show hosts had a field day with it. There was a whole, informal campaign about frivolous lawsuits framed around the incident.
In the Seinfeld episode, Kramer burns his wang with a latte, sues the coffee shop, and wins lattes for life:
I knew a lot of facts about the story that were not common knowledge, but it turns out that I only knew part of the story too.
I used to teach this case as a memorable example when teaching Specific Heat Capacity (SHC). SHC is a measure of how much thermal energy has to be transferred to change the temperature of something. For example, the specific heat of copper is 386 J/kg*K. That means if you want to heat up a kilogram of copper by one degree Celsius (or Kelvin) you have to add 386 joules of thermal energy. If you want to cool it down by one degree, you have to remove that much thermal energy.
One thing that's special about water is its amazingly high specific heat. Its SHC is 4,186 J/kg*K. That means you have to transfer about 11 times as much energy out of a kilo of water to cool it down as much as one kilo of copper.
It turns out, the woman who got burned wasn't driving. She was a passenger. The car was even parked when she got her burn. She was the 711th person to make a claim about being injured by McD's coffee that year. McD's knew about the problem and didn't do anything to rectify it. She also didn't get made a millionaire. The judge reduced the punitive damage to $480,000 which McD's still appealed. The plaintiff settled out of court for a lower, undisclosed sum of money.
But six figures for burning yourself with coffee? Still seems excessive, doesn't it? I mean, I've burned myself with coffee before and just toughed it out. But then again, none of my coffee burns resulted in third degree burns on my genitals. That's right, massive tissue damage to the naughty bits requiring multiple skin graft surgeries and admission to a burn unit.
It's that high SHC thing that's to blame. McD's keeps their coffee abnormally hot. You're not supposed to brew coffee hotter than 180 degrees Fahrenheit because it causes the oils in the brew to taste funny. McD's stores their coffee at around 190 degrees Fahrenheit. It's estimated that this cup might have been closer to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Since the SHC of water (coffee) is so high, that 10-20 degree difference makes for a tremendous amount of extra thermal energy stored in it. What's worse is the woman didn't immediately strip naked when the coffee spilled on her. The coffee saturated her pants and underwear and continued to give up it's thermal energy until her naughty bits and the coffee were at thermal equilibrium. Out of courtesy, I only posted pictures of the burns on her legs. I won't show you her actual private parts. At 79 years old, they were probably nothing nice before they were horribly mutilated.
Here are pictures of the burns on top of her thighs and her lower leg. Remember, the worst of the burns were where the coffee pooled up under her where she was sitting, her labia and ass cheeks:
The thing that really bothers me about this whole situation is how the facts were misrepresented for the case to be used as an example of how lawsuits are made for cashing in. If you had a chance for your privates to be horribly mutilated, would need multiple surgeries, and would never be the same again for less than $480,000, you'd have to be an idiot (or a deranged masochist) to go for it. I think there are tons of examples of bullshit, frivolous lawsuits, but this wasn't one of them. This is a legitimate bitch if ever there was one.
Big business (not just McD's) grabbed onto this case like gold and tried to use it to limit our right to stand up to people who do us serious harm due to their negligence. I understand why people don't trust big government due to it's self interest and history of inefficiency. But what I can't understand is how these same people want to privatize things the government does and give control to intentionally evil liars in big business to wantonly fuck us for their bottom line.
The documentary is called Hot Coffee, is showing on HBO this month. I've only watched the first twenty minutes or so, but it's an eye opener (*pun for you slow kids).