, Salem, MA

March 11, 2013

Letter: Too many have lost sight of the tort law system

The Salem News

---- — To the editor:

I would like to thank your newspaper for running the article on Norman Pelletier’s lawsuit against the Danversport Yacht Club on Feb. 28. As Mr. Pelletier’s lawyer, you had called my office seeking comment, however, I was in court at the time. As this case has garnered significant attention from various media outlets, I would now like to provide background and perspective to the facts you reported.

The so-called “tort-reform” movement, spurred and funded by moneyed interests such as insurance companies and other large corporations, has purposefully distorted the facts of various cases in an effort to discredit our tort law system. The media is now in lock-step with this propaganda, and so, too, is public opinion. Judging by the tone of your article, as well as comments on your website, the tort-reform movement has successfully turned the public against injured parties. Sadly, the first instinct is now to ridicule the injured and their claims for redress based on assumptions and half-truths.

Your allusion to the “Hot Coffee” case, and your attempt to link it to Mr. Pelletier’s case, is a perfect example. The reference was clearly designed to elicit public outrage at yet another example of frivolous litigation. Indeed, I have filed hundreds of lawsuits in Essex Superior Court and have a long history of representing injured persons, some who have died or suffered catastrophic injuries as the result of the negligence of others. Most of these cases do not garner any media attention. No doubt, you chose the “Hot Coffee” case and Mr. Pelletier’s claim because, on their surface, they appear to be humorous examples of a perceived abuse of our legal system.

In truth, there is nothing funny or unreasonable about the allegations and injuries in either case. In the infamous “Hot Coffee” case, Stella Liebeck, 79, suffered third-degree burns over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas, requiring surgery and an eight-day hospital stay. Prior to her accident, McDonald’s had received hundreds of complaints of injury due to the excessive temperature of its coffee, yet failed to take any action. Ms. Liebeck was merely seeking payment of her medical bills. The judge in the case described McDonald’s behavior as “callous, reckless and willful.” As a result of the lawsuit, McDonald’s reduced the holding temperature of its coffee so that if you accidentally spill coffee on yourself at the drive-through, you won’t have to suffer what Ms. Liebeck did. If you want to know more about the “Hot Coffee” case, I have several DVD copies of the documentary “Hot Coffee” and would be happy to lend copies to any party upon request.

With respect to Mr. Pelletier, he is 75 years old and a lifelong resident of the North Shore area who was a successful businessman and continues to work part time. He is not litigious. He is diabetic and has only partial feeling in his feet. The ramp at issue was the only means of access to the pool area at the Danversport Yacht Club, where many persons walk around barefoot on hot summer days. On that day, Mr. Pelletier visited the pool with his 8-year-old granddaughter. The ramp was not solid, exposed metal as suggested in your article, but made of metal strips alternating with a rough material for traction, which would not suggest that it could cause burns. Mr. Pelletier did not realize he burned his feet until he had reached the end of the ramp. By then, he had sustained second-degree burns to the soles of both his feet; one later became infected. His medical expenses alone resulting from this injury were in excess of $15,000.

In an analogous context, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has investigated thermal burns resulting in playground equipment. The CPSC reported hundreds of children who received second- and third-degree burns on their hands, legs or buttocks from playground-surfacing materials, most notably metal slides that many of us may remember from our childhood. As the result of the work of the CPSC and ensuing lawsuits, manufacturers have adopted safer alternative surfaces or provided protective coverings.

This is the point of our tort law system — to compensate persons injured by negligence and pressure safety changes that will benefit the public at large. In this case, the ramp at issue could have been made safe for all with the installation of a cover at minimum cost, and a warning could also have prevented injury. I am proud and honored to represent Mr. Pelletier in his lawsuit and to continue to hold large corporations and insurance companies accountable, one case at a time.

Attorney Michael F. Mahoney