In my last blog, I spoke about how insurance companies don’t want juries to know the truth about the existence of liability insurance when a case goes to trial. Even though an insurance company will be responsible for payment of any verdict awarded, insurance companies have been successful in virtually every state except Louisiana and Minnesota in preventing juries from learning the truth—i.e., that an insurance company (and not a person who may appear destitute in some circumstances) will be responsible for payment of any judgment.
There are many more things that insurance companies don’t want juries to hear. In this blog, I want to discuss one of those things—which is known as the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule prohibits a lawyer from asking a jury to put itself in the position of the injured person. It is not a written rule of evidence but a substantive common law rule that precludes any argument that suggests that the jury place themselves in the position of a party to the lawsuit.
Since the 1980’s, many insurance companies have been using propaganda that is intended to poison potential jurors. For example, who hasn’t heard about the McDonald’s coffee spill? We’ve all heard that it is an example of the need for tort reform because a runaway jury in the case awarded way too much money. At least that’s what the insurance companies claim.
The truth about that injury is that 79-year-old Stella Liebeck received scalding hot coffee from a McDonald’s that was so hot that it would cause third degree burns within two to seven seconds of contact with the body. According to the Center for Justice and Democracy, Ms. Liebeck actually received third degree burns over 16 percent of her body. She was in the hospital for eight days and had extremely serious injury. McDonald’s admitted that it knew of the risk of serious burns from its scalding hot coffee but had not taken any action to stop selling scalding hot coffee. Despite the injuries she received, Ms. Liebeck offered to settle her case for $20,000 but McDonald’s only offered to pay $800. After a jury heard all the evidence, it returned an award resulting in a judgment for $160,000 in compensatory damages and punitive damages that were ultimately reduced to $480,000. See http://centerjd.org/content/faq-about-mcdonald%E2%80%99s-coffee-case-and-use-fabricated-anecdotes.
Despite the existence of egregious facts and serious injuries that more than justified the McDonald’s coffee verdict, the insurance industry has successfully distorted the true facts behind the McDonald’s coffee case so that consumers—the persons who will ultimately serve on juries—are poisoned into believing that it is wrong to award full compensation to injury victims. The McDonald’s case has been used, in conjunction with other tactics, to falsely deceive potential jurors to believe that awarding a judgment for full compensation will increase liability insurance premiums or will somehow result in a personal cost to the potential juror.
By doing so, insurance companies have been successful in causing jurors to put themselves in either the position of the insurance company or of the person who wrongfully injured another person. By suggesting that a verdict for full compensation will cause an increase in a potential juror’s own insurance premiums, potential jurors have effectively been encouraged to award less than full compensation due to injury victims. It’s only when tragedy hits that many consumers—who have previously served on juries—come to realize that they have been misled into awarding less than the compensation due for injuries.
Insurance companies have been successful for many years in convincing the very people who serve on juries to put themselves in the position of the person who caused the injury. While Medlock, Gramlich & Sexton is experienced in weeding out potential jurors poisoned by these improper and inappropriate actions, the truth is that it’s unfair that injury victims don’t have the same resources or abilities to spread their message as do the billion dollar insurance companies.
It’s time that we consider leveling the playing field and allowing injured persons to make the same request of juries. After all, what’s wrong with allowing the injury victim to use the trial to make the same statement that insurance companies have spent millions, if not billions, of dollars to make for many years.
(c) 2014 by Chip Sexton