In the early 1990s, an elderly woman purchased a coffee from a fast food restaurant and soon after spilled it onto her lap, causing her to suffer serious injuries, including third-degree burns.
She was widely mocked and derided for her decision to sue the restaurant, even though, as it was lesser known at the time, the restaurant chain knew its hot drinks posed a significant risk to consumers, was far too hot for consumption and had previously injured hundreds of people – including children and infants.
Although the fast-food restaurant ultimately lost the civil case in 1994, it and other large corporations won a major victory in the push for tort reform. The companies have been successful in convincing a large swath of the public that far too many personal injury lawsuits are “frivolous,” juries are out-of-control, judges fail to keep everyone in check and worst of all – taxpayers foot the bill. Of course, this isn’t accurate. But this case marked the beginning of widespread “mandatory arbitration,” which effectively limits the public’s access to seek justice in civil court.
Our Sarasota injury lawyers note this is the subject of a newly-released documentary, “Hot Coffee.” These mandatory arbitration agreements have become so commonplace, most people don’t even realize they are agreeing to them. In some instances, simply purchasing a product or entering a store or doctor’s office is considered an “agreement” to arbitrate.
The reason this matters is that this process takes justice out of the hands of the court system and places it in the hands of individuals who needn’t have any formal legal training or experience. Additionally, it is a firm of the defendant company’s choosing. There is a limited discovery period in the arbitration process, which makes it tougher for plaintiffs to gain access to important documents and information that could bolster their claim. There is also no right to public access, so the rest of the world may never know what happened. There is also no legal precedent set in these cases, so there is no opportunity for future rules of conduct to be established. In some cases, class action litigation is barred under arbitration agreements.
Overall, the process is heavily skewed in favor of the defendant corporation. Consider that the National Arbitration Forum ruled in favor of consumers in California in less than 0.2 percent of all cases over a four-year period from 2003 through 2007.
It’s also a myth that arbitration will save the consumer plaintiff time and money. The reality is, arbitration can take many years, and it is often held in a forum that is not convenient. Plus, while plaintiffs in court pay nothing upfront, those in arbitration generally have to split the costs with the defendant. This can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars an hour. This inevitably proves prohibitively expensive for a lot of people – and corporations know it.
An experienced injury lawyer may be able to remove the case from arbitration to court if it can prove the agreement wasn’t binding because it was either unconscionable or involuntary. The ruling in the 2009 case of Vaden v. Discover Bank, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, did make it easier for consumers to challenge arbitration clauses. Specifically, the court ruled the Federal Arbitration Act does not confer federal jurisdiction over arbitration petitions.
Sarasota personal injury claims can be made by calling Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.
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