Do Big Lawsuits Really Protect People?

Lawsuits Protect People

A recent spate of consumer product recalls have spawned numerous legal actions. Some people want to know who really benefits from these actions, the consumers who bought dangerous products or the lawyers who file the cases?

Philips recently recalled millions of defective CPAP machines designed for people with sleep apnea.

The foam lining in these machines can disintegrate and the tiny particles can cause serious, and often fatal, lung injuries.

At roughly the same time, researchers discovered that Coppertone, Banana Boat, and Neutrogena sunscreens all contained high levels of benzene, a chemical that causes cancer. In response, Johnson & Johnson recalled these products.

Adding to this hit parade, Peloton, which is dealing with diminished sales and an SEC investigation, recalled over 100,000 treadmills after a product defect killed a half-dozen users.

Several dozen legal actions have been filed against Philips and Johnson & Johnson with more on the way. But Peloton is only facing one consumer class action lawsuit.

Your Day in Court

One reason attorneys file legal actions in these situations is to ensure that victims have their day in court. If no one speaks up for them, their stories usually either get lost in the shuffle or, more commonly, spun in unfavorable ways.

The infamous McDonald’s hot coffee case is a good example. We are approaching the 30th anniversary of Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants.

According to one-sided media reports, Ms. Liebeck spilled hot coffee on her lap and won $2.9 million. That’s only part of the story.

The coffee’s temperature was a little over 200 degrees.

That’s just short of boiling and significantly hotter than the industry standard at the time. On top of that, prior to this incident, McDonald’s had received almost 1,000 complaints about the coffee’s temperature and had done nothing to remedy the situation.

Because of the high temperature, Ms. Liebeck suffered from third-degree burns to her inner thigh.

Readers with very strong stomachs can Google “Stella Liebeck injuries” and see the gruesome photos of the injuries this 79-year-old woman sustained.

As for the damages, $2.9 million was one day of coffee sales for the fast-food giant. Most people would consider that a reasonable amount of punitive damages, given the above facts.

Furthermore, the judge reduced the damages to $640,000 and the case later settled for an undisclosed amount. Ms. Liebeck’s daughter said the family spent most of the money on home healthcare for her mother.

If she hadn’t filed a lawsuit, no one would have ever heard her side of the story.

Instead, McDonald’s would have portrayed her as a symbol of a system that supposedly was weighed against rich companies.

Making People Safer

Product recalls themselves make people safer.

They pull dangerous products off the shelves. So, what’s the point of a company paying millions or billions of dollars?

For many companies, a product recall is just a line item on a balance sheet.

There is no real money to pay. The Food and Drug Administration can pressure companies to halt sales, but the agency usually cannot fine these companies.

Punitive damages, on the other hand, send a message to companies who only speak the language of money.

If companies must pay eye-popping amounts of money, they will think twice before they take shortcuts during the manufacturing process which could put consumers at risk.

Legally, a New York personal injury attorney can obtain punitive damages if there is clear and convincing evidence that the defendant intentionally disregarded a known risk.

Typically, companies know about problems with their products.

But like McDonald’s, they do nothing. Unless an attorney takes legal action, they would most likely continue to do nothing. To most companies, safety fixes are just unnecessary costs.

To Sue or Not to Sue

If product liability actions are so wonderful, why do lawyers only file them in some situations? That’s a good question.

The company’s financial health has a lot to do with the decision.

Companies that are having financial problems often file bankruptcy to avoid paying large judgments. Federal judges usually, but do not always, attach strings to these bankruptcies which protect victims.

Even if they do, a fund administrator, as opposed to a jury of one’s peers, usually decides how much compensation to award.

There are some legal issues to consider as well, such as the unforeseeable misuse defense. This defense might explain the relative lack of Peloton lawsuits.

These individuals might not have been using the treadmill properly. Of course, this defense might not hold up in court. But it’s a risk to take into account.

Attorneys go through a similar process in other types of injury claims. In most cases, a lawsuit is a last resort.

Lawyers usually give companies that sell defective products and negligent drivers who cause accidents plenty of chances to make things right. But if push comes to shove, we don’t back down.

Dangerous product victims deserve fair compensation for their serious injuries. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in New York, contact Napoli Shkolnik PLLC.