Law Day 2012 "No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom"
by Ed Vopal, President
Wisconsin Association for Justice
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. The original Law Day proclamation by President Dwight Eisenhower emphasized these goals by stating that our country "[h]as served as an inspiration and a beacon of light for oppressed people of the world seeking freedom, justice and equality of the individual under law."
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. People who were shown the photos of the burns in the documentary were visibly shocked at the severity.
"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.
The Liebeck jury's message was lost, however, in the relentless media attacks by major corporate interests, like the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), whose Fortune 500 company members have a direct stake in restricting lawsuits. "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.
"Hot Coffee" also features real-life examples of other threats to trial by jury: Caps on damages, judicial campaigns and mandatory arbitration. This great documentary helps viewers understand the purpose of the civil justice system and the important role juries play in it.
James Madison wrote, "Trial by jury in civil cases is as essential to secure the liberty of the people as any one of the pre-existent rights of nature."
Let us endeavor to protect trial by jury and courts. Courts and juries play a vital role in protecting the rights of average citizens. Without these rights, American's ability to hold those who harm us accountable when injured by the negligence of others is at risk. Without the vital protections that courts and juries provide, there would be no justice and no freedom.
For more information about the Wisconsin Association for Justice, see WAJ's website or call 608-257-5741.