Did a burglar really sue the owner and win?

A burglar falls through a skylight onto a knife and sues the owner. A woman sues McDonalds for hot coffee. A man has a heart attack starting a lawnmower and sues the lawnmower company. This is supposed to make us feel disgusted with the civil justice system, disgusted with those greedy poor people trying to win huge jackpot lawsuits from corporations. Those poor businesses!

After watching the fascinating documentary Hot Coffee, it seems that corporations themselves might be the reason we hear about these lawsuits to begin with. They are the voice in your head crying "poor businesses!" They are the ones promoting them!

Promoting, embellishing, exagerating, and distorting. Take the burglar case, made famous by a comment Ronald Reagan once made (and distorted). We picture an armed man in a mask trying to rob a lady in the suberbs. It was a young kid, along with some friends, on the roof of his former high school. He was in fact stealing a flood light, fell through a skylight, and became paralyzed for the rest of his life; not being able to care for himself for the rest of his life. The McDonalds "idiot" was an elderly woman who suffered 3rd degree burns all over her lap that required skin graphs. She was parked, in the passenger seat adding cream and sugar, and the coffee was indeed too hot (according to McDonalds standards). Now, don't get me wrong, there is truth to all these stories--they are all slightly ridiculous, even when you hear all the facts.

Corporations, seeing an advantage, are making a big fuss about these extreme cases. That big fuss is called "tort reform" and, at the state level, they have managed to make several strides in limiting the amount of money that people can win over big business. Caps on damages, no matter what the jury or judge says, no matter how negligent, no matter what the damages are. On the other side, of course, are the lawyers and the consumers (us).

But--and here's the point--these cases are exceptions to the rule. The civil justice system is not represented by these cases, they are outliers. In fact, working in a law library, it was almost impossible for me to find these cases (they happen at lower level courts, are unpublished, and are usually settled on). At the end of the day, the legal system is generally solid, generally promotes common sense justice, and compensates people who were wronged by other people.

You see this kind of thing happen all the time: first, something crazy happens; second, people make a big deal of it; third, sweeping solutions are proposes so that this crazy thing never happens again. And in hindsight, the solution is too sweeping and causes too many other problems but, hey, at least that one crazy thing won't happen again.

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