Feb 11

How Ordinary Citizens Achieve Justice


“The founders of our nation considered the right of trial by jury in civil cases an important bulwark against tyranny and corruption. … (J)uries represent the layman’s common sense and thus keep the administration of law in accord with the wishes and feelings of the community.”

– Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist

The American Civil Justice System

Innocent people are sometimes injured or killed because someone else created an unreasonably dangerous situation. The effects of the injury or death are magnified by the high cost of medical care and the difficulties presented when people can’t work or care for their families. The person or business that created the problem should take responsibility and correct the situation as best as possible.

Sometimes, however, that doesn’t happen. Either the responsible party refuses to admit that they are at fault, an insurance company refuses to take care of the injured person, or reasonable people simply disagree about what should be done.  When this occurs the civil justice system is the only option available to the injured person.

The civil justice system is different than the criminal justice system.  Under criminal law the federal, state or local government may try to punish someone for committing a crime.  Citizens, however, must rely on civil law to achieve justice.  For example, if a member of your family is injured because someone else acted carelessly the only way to force the other person or their insurance company to pay the medical bills and lost wages is through the civil justice system.

The American civil justice system uses juries to apply legal standards to the situation at hand and then decide who, if anyone, is at fault.  Sometimes there is a specific legal standard that applies an exact standard of care and dictates what actions a person or business must take when conducting a particular activity.  For example, under both federal law and Oregon law a commercial truck driver must carefully inspect the brakes on their truck before it can be driven on a public road.  If someone is killed because a truck driver didn’t bother to inspect the brakes on his truck the jury must decide, “Did the driver fail to follow the law and inspect the brakes and did this failure result in the victim’s death?”

We cannot write a specific law for every possible activity, however.  Because of this, we often rely on the “common” law reasonable standard of care.  This standard is straight forward.  It states that every person and business has a duty to act in a “reasonable” manner to avoid injuring others.  For instance, there is no specific law that requires, “You cannot injure another person by crashing your delivery truck into the side of their car because you were too busy eating a cheeseburger and changing the radio station.”  Instead, using the common law standard of care the jury must simply decide, “Given these circumstances, was the driver of the delivery truck acting reasonable when they injured the other person?”

The American jury system protects both sides of the dispute.  It ensures that everyone, even the largest corporations, is held accountable when they carelessly injure someone.  Likewise, the jury can find against any person who has filed a lawsuit if the jury believes the case has no merit.  Because each side must answer to a jury of community members, no one can use their wealth or political power to sway the outcome of the trial. To learn more about the American jury system and Oregon juries click here.  For a general introduction to Oregon courts click here.

Our Civil Justice System Is Efficient and Effective

False information about the jury system seems to be everywhere these days.  It comes from various sources including political pundits, insurance companies and big corporations who do not want to be held accountable for the injuries they may cause.  Instead, they are only concerned about increasing profits.  They claim that the jury system is somehow broken or unfair.  They do this by exaggerating the facts of real lawsuits or by simply creating bogus examples.

The truth, however, is that the American civil justice system is very effective at resolving disputes.  And, our courts are quick to dump frivolous lawsuits before they ever get to a jury.  According to the U.S. Justice Department the number of personal injury cases resolved in U.S. district courts fell 79% between 1985 and 2003.  Similarly, in state courts the number of civil trials fell by 50% between 1992 and 2005. Links to this information are provided below.

If you are skeptical of these numbers there is an easy way to find out the truth – go see for yourself. Stop by your local courthouse sometime. By law, it will be open to the public.  You will see that the great majority of trials are actually criminal matters and cases where businesses are suing each other over contract disputes.  It will be clear that personal injury cases are not clogging the system.

Personal injury cases, though a small percentage of trials, help prevent costly accidental injuries that have a huge effect on our national economy.  A recent independent study by the Rand Institute estimated that the cost to the U.S. economy for treating careless injuries amounted to nearly $154 billion in 1997 alone. That amounted to about 20% (or 1/5) of the nations’ total health care costs. The lost work time caused by those injuries amounted to an additional $100 billion. According to the Consumer Federation of America, in the U.S. about 6,000 deaths and millions of injuries are prevented each year because of the deterrent effect of civil lawsuits. They force businesses and individuals to exercise reasonable care to prevent injuring others.

Civil suits help injured parties pay their medical bills, care for their families and, hopefully, live as normal a life as possible. Be careful not to believe emails or myths that make it seem as if our civil justice system is not fair. For example, email reports like the “Stella Awards” are circulated widely, though the cases they describe often never existed, they were simply made up. Even the producers of the “Stella Awards” admit that these cases are often fabricated (see www.stellaawards.com/bogus.html).

The McDonald’s Coffee Case

We have all heard about the “McDonald’s Coffee” case. However, the true facts of what happened to Mrs. Stella Liebeck are very different than what the media and politicians have told us.

For example, did you know that the coffee McDonald’s served was purposefully held at a dangerously high temperature (40-50 degrees hotter than home coffee makers) simply to preserve its taste longer as it sat in the coffee pot over time?  At trial, it was proven that McDonald’s did this even though they knew it could cause third degree burns and in spite of the fact that they had received complaints about burns from nearly 700 customers.

The person injured in this case was 79 year-old Stella Liebeck who was hospitalized for eight days to undergo skin grafts and tissue removal to treat third degree burns to her inner thigh, genital and buttocks areas. She had to have medical care for two years.

When burned, Mrs. Liebeck was sitting in a parked car when the coffee slipped out of her hand and spilled in her lap. To learn more about the truth of Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries and her case watch this New York Times documentary.

Before trial Mrs. Liebeck tried to settle her case for a modest amount – simply to pay her medical bills and loss of income. McDonald’s refused to admit that they were wrong and offered just $800.00 against thousands of dollars in medical bills (see more about the “McDonald’s Coffee” case). The jury imposed $2.7 million in punitive damages against McDonalds (their profits from just two days of selling coffee) to try and get them to change their behavior. Now, McDonald’s serves their coffee at a more reasonable temperature, just like other restaurants.

Please Do Your Part

If you are summoned for jury duty, please consider that we each have a responsibility to be involved in our community. We decide what actions create an unreasonable risk of danger and when parties should bear the blame for injuring someone.  If reasonable citizens refuse to do their duty and to help decide what is right and what is wrong, then who will decide? The answer is likely big business and powerful political interests. However, regular citizens should have a voice too. They should ensure that the system remains fair.  Remember that you too may need the help of a jury someday.

More Information

Oregon Jury Project: “12 Minds, 12 Voices, 1 Common Good.”

Americans for Insurance Reform: “Protecting Rights Not Wrongs.”

People Over Profits: “Your grassroots network to protect civil justice.”

Rand Institute for Civil Justice: “Helping to make the civil justice system more efficient and equitable.”

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