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Gena Bigler: The myth of ‘Jackpot justice’ does disservice to victims, justice system

The myth of “jackpot justice” does a huge disservice to the victims and to the justice system. Many people believe you can get rich from lawsuits, but honestly I wouldn’t trade places with any of the millionaire clients I’ve seen. A million dollars sounds like a lot until you see the needs and the suffering of the victims.

An average middle class American will earn a million dollars over his or her work life. Most injured people will never work again. Their only support is either the money they receive from a lawsuit or Social Security. Replacing a living wage that was taken from them does not make them rich.

Most injured people have serious and ongoing medical problems. Many require very expensive care and equipment. Replacing a wheelchair or new prosthetic every few years as recommended is very expensive. Having the responsible party pay for these is not unreasonable. For most injured parties, the health care costs would fall to Medicare or Medicaid if they not covered in a lawsuit. Having the resources to get needed medical equipment does not make them rich.

One of the most misunderstood lawsuits is the now infamous “coffee case.” Here are some of the facts: the victim was an 84-year-old lady; she was a passenger in a parked car when the accident happened; she suffered third-degree burns on her genitals, inner thighs, perineum and buttocks; she was hospitalized for eight days and underwent skin grafts to repair the damage; she wanted to settle for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses, but McDonalds refused, choosing instead to go to trial.

During the trial, McDonalds produced records that proved 700 other people had been burned by the coffee over the course of a decade. Many of those people also suffered third-degree burns. The company knew about the problem but did not fix it. The jury decided to award two days of coffee sales to the injured woman or about $2.7 million. This amount was classified as “punitive damages.

The purpose of punitive damages is to punish for outrageous behavior. In this case, McDonalds had been told by 700 people that the coffee was too hot and dangerous but did nothing to make it safer. The jury decided that two days of coffee sales might encourage better behavior. Ultimately, the injured lady did not receive the amount the jury decided she should. The trial court dramatically reduced the punitive amount to less than $500,000. Would you sacrifice your genitals and undergo painful surgeries for less than $500,000?

Juries decide if criminals live or die; juries decide if people are guilty or innocent, and if someone deserves to his or her freedom. If a jury can decide if someone should live or die, they should be able to decide how much money a victim deserves. Either we trust juries or we don’t. When companies, doctors, employers and people cause someone harm they have a responsibility to make it right. If the wrongdoer does not make it right, then often it falls to the taxpayer to cover the costs of care via social security disability, Medicare or Medicaid.

Personal responsibility and our system of law dictate that if I break something I pay for it. If I hit someone with my car, I have to pay for the damage or my insurer pays. It is why I have insurance and why my rates go up if I drive carelessly. My mistake; I pay. It is simple and fair. There are no “caps” on personal responsibility. There are no special preview panels to see if my victim deserves a chance at justice. If we trust our juries to make life and death decisions, then certainly we should trust them to make money decisions.

Gena Bigler is passionate about public service and credits her time serving nonprofits in AmeriCorps and Volunteers in Service to America (V.I.S.T.A.) with teaching her extreme budgeting and bargain shopping. Gena is now CFO of McNay Settlement Group and serves on the board of the Lactation Improvement Network of Kentucky (L.I.N.K.). Gena would be happy to hear from you at lgbigler@gmail.com.


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