It began with a recent approach by a grade 11 high school student whose essay inquiry has reawakened memories of draconian measures invoked for so-called tort reform in 2002 and 2003 in Queensland.
The student was working on an assignment in Legal Studies and her topic referred to a comment I'd made to the press some 16 years ago regarding what I then saw as "ill-conceived and draconian" measures to restrict the rights of plaintiffs in Queensland as a result of the reforms underway.
Despite drastic changes made the demands are still there as insurers push even harder today to chip away further at Queenslanders' compensation law rights.
The student's inquiry reawakened the bleak days of 2002/03 and the concerted attack by the public liability insurers, medical insurers and the medical profession back at that time, and how so much misinformation from the insurance industry was used to eventually cause a buckling of the will by government. It led to a significant reduction of entitlements to injured Queenslanders and, for that matter, all Australians.
Back then, the insurance industry fear mongered, arguing there was a growing Americanisation of the personal injury compensation legal system in this country and reference was often made to an infamous American case where a woman allegedly received millions of dollars of damages after spilling coffee she purchased from a McDonald's restaurant on her lap. It was argued that this sort of craziness could not be let loose in Australia.
The case was Liebeck v McDonald's Restaurants and, at the risk of letting the truth get in the way of a good story, I believe it's worthwhile to reflect on that case as a warning to the public, that it should not allow the misleading scuttlebutt of insurance companies to be used to erode the hard-won rights of Australians.
Mrs Liebeck was a 79-year-old grandmother. She was a passenger in a car. She purchased a cup of coffee at a McDonald's drive-thru in Albuquerque, USA. While the car was stationary, she took the lid off the coffee cup to add sugar and cream. She spilt coffee on her lap and suffered burns.
It was the policy of McDonald's to superheat its coffee to 85°C. If spilt, it would cause third-degree burns in 3 to 7 seconds.
Mrs Liebeck's case was not isolated. McDonald's had received more than 700 previous reports of injury from its coffee, including third-degree burns, and had paid settlements in some cases.
At the time of the spill, Mrs Liebeck was wearing track pants, which absorbed the coffee and kept it against her skin. She suffered third-degree burns and required skin grafts on inner thighs and elsewhere.
Mrs Liebeck offered to settle her case for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses and lost income. McDonald's never offered more than $800. The case went to trial.
The most damaging testimony at the trial against McDonald's came from its own quality assurance manager, who testified that McDonald's required the restaurants to keep their coffee pot temperature at 85°C. He admitted that a burn risk existed for any drink served at over 60°C and that the coffee poured into the cups was not fit for human consumption since it was above that temperature. Burns to the mouth and throat would occur if the consumer would drink the coffee at that temperature. He also admitted that McDonald's had no plans to reduce the temperature of its coffee.
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