Blocking the Courthouse Door

Stephanie Mencimer examines how “lawsuit abuse” became GOP political gold.

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A woman burns her lap with a cup of McDonald’s coffee and sues the fast-food chain to the tune of $3 million. There’s a good reason why you know this story, thanks to a decade-long campaign by Republicans, tobacco companies, and the insurance industry to awaken Americans to the dangers of “lawsuit abuse” and out-of-control juries. Here’s what you don’t know: As Stephanie Mencimer points out in this blistering book, the burned woman, Stella Liebeck, was not some yuppie rushing to work; she was a conservative 79-year-old retired department store clerk. At the time of her 1992 accident, McDonald’s had received more than 700 complaints about its coffee being too hot—including several from Cincinnati’s burn center. Liebeck’s award was reduced to $480,000, and she eventually settled for much less than $3 million. But her case had already become one of the causes célèbres of the tort reform movement.

Armed with solid research and a reformist spirit, Mencimer demonstrates how this obscure legal concept became political gold for Republicans. In 1994, Karl Rove persuaded Texas gubernatorial candidate George W. Bush to declare war on “junk lawsuits.” The issue brought doctors and small-business owners into the gop camp, and it also allowed for veiled attacks against supposedly Latino-dominated juries. Another perfect wedge issue was born.

From Texas, Mencimer follows the Republicans as they reshape the law to protect corporations from citizens’ right to a trial by jury. In terms of our democracy, the stakes could not be higher. For example, without uniform health care, the courts are the first and last resort for patients seeking redress for botched medical procedures. Malpractice cases are not simply about money. Suing a hospital is often the only way to find out what really happened. As Mencimer points out, a lot of malpractice cases are dropped once the facts are discovered in the legal process; big settlements are rare but inevitably make headlines. She convincingly corrects many other misperceptions about ambulance-chasing lawyers, “jackpot” juries, and the notion that frivolous lawsuits have made our lives more expensive. But everyone hates a lawyer—until they need one.

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GREAT JOURNALISM, SLOW FUNDRAISING

Our team has been on fire lately—publishing sweeping, one-of-a-kind investigations, ambitious, groundbreaking projects, and even releasing “the holy shit documentary of the year.” And that’s on top of protecting free and fair elections and standing up to bullies and BS when others in the media don’t.

Yet, we just came up pretty short on our first big fundraising campaign since Mother Jones and the Center for Investigative Reporting joined forces.

So, two things:

1) If you value the journalism we do but haven’t pitched in over the last few months, please consider doing so now—we urgently need a lot of help to make up for lost ground.

2) If you’re not ready to donate but you’re interested enough in our work to be reading this, please consider signing up for our free Mother Jones Daily newsletter to get to know us and our reporting better. Maybe once you do, you’ll see it’s something worth supporting.

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