Law Day’s theme, “No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom,” succinctly illustrates the critical role courts play in achieving our societal goals of justice and freedom.
Our legal system has been under attack both on a federal and state level. One of the biggest attacks over the past 25 years has been on the civil justice system, including restrictions and limitations being imposed on jury trials as well as criticism of the jury trial process. The right to trial by jury is protected in both the United States and Wisconsin Constitutions.
During a jury trial, the jurors are the “collective conscience” of our communities. Juries call upon the sound judgment and good character of our community members to decide the facts of a case and to determine the fair remedy for those who have been wronged. Juries bring fairness and openness to legal proceedings. And, unlike other institutions, juries have no self-interest in the outcome. The jurors want nothing for themselves – they seek only to find the truth. America’s juries truly represent democracy at work.
To understand the attack on juries in the civil justice system, I urge people to view the documentary “Hot Coffee,” produced by trial attorney Susan Saladoff. Members of the Wisconsin Association for Justice have made the award-winning documentary available to public libraries across Wisconsin. The documentary uses the famous McDonald’s “Hot Coffee” case to demonstrate how the media and big corporate interests have distorted the facts and the jury’s findings.
“Hot Coffee” shows pictures of the grievous injuries Mrs. Liebeck suffered from the scalding coffee. The third-degree burns to her inner thighs and surrounding areas were so severe that they necessitated skin grafts.
“Hot Coffee” features testimony of an executive at McDonald’s who acknowledged 700 complaints were filed due to hot coffee burns. Despite these prior reports, McDonald’s did nothing to change company policy to heat the coffee to 180 degrees. Liquids hotter than that can result in severe burns in a matter of seconds.
“Hot Coffee” includes an interview with a juror from the trial, expressing her concern with McDonald’s cavalier attitude of dealing with Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries. McDonald’s corporate policy was the reason the jury found McDonald’s had engaged in willful and reckless behavior, which subjected McDonald’s to punitive damages. The jury wanted to send a message to McDonald’s to change its business practices and protect consumers.
“Hot Coffee” features an interview with Victor Schwartz, general counsel for ATRA, admitting that unfounded stories were repeated by groups supporting limiting the rights of injured consumers.
Ed Vopal is president of the Wisconsin Association for Justice.