Doctors, hospitals, insurers, politicians, and businesses may assail the civil justice system over sums it awards to people who have proven they have been harmed. But as significant as some judgments may be, they may be exactly what judges and juries decide may be required to get institutions and enterprises to stop stubborn wrongs.
Is $215 million enough in a federal case, for example, to get the University of Southern California to learn the hard lesson that it needs to listen and to act swiftly if coeds and nurses complain about inappropriate sexual behavior of its student health service staff?
Is $46 million sufficient to get Ikea to fix, recall, and inform the public yet more about the dangers to children of pieces of its furniture that can tip over and kill kids — the latest victim being Jozef Dudek, 2?
USC is not done with lawsuits over the claims of sexual misbehavior by George Tyndall, its onetime gynecologist who is estimated to have seen 18,000 female patients at the school. The university, which had to inform 150,000 women who attended USC between 1989 and 2016 that they were potential plaintiffs in a class action suit, still faces hundreds of cases involving him in state courts. And, as the Los Angeles Times reported of what the school knew and when about Tyndall’s outrages:
“Records unsealed in the federal case showed that USC’s contracted medical experts concluded that Tyndall’s pelvic exams were inappropriate and not within medical standards, and that he had ‘unusual and potentially dangerous opinions about breast exams.’ Nevertheless, the university quietly cut ties with the physician and neglected to report him to state regulators until months later.”
As for Ikea, this was the second settlement it has reached over its tumbling dressers. In 2016, three families split $50 million to resolve their lawsuits with the company.
USA Today reported this about what the company knew and when and how it has reacted earlier:
“Ikea dressers have been linked to the deaths of at least nine children and dozens of injuries. Often the incidents happen when a child pulls on the drawers of a unit, sending it crashing forward. The company, the largest furniture retailer in the world, recalled 17.3 million dressers in 2016, including the three-drawer Malm that tipped onto Jozef. Millions of the recalled dressers remain in use today, and the company as part of the settlement has agreed to broaden its outreach to consumers about the recall …”
It’s also worth noting that, although Ikea has recalled its dressers once, destroying hundreds of thousands of them and redesigning the product, the new furniture still does not meet industry standards. And the company now more robustly warns buyers that they must anchor pieces to the wall for safety. Still, millions of problematic products remain in use, and the Dudek family said the company’s faint efforts were unacceptable to inform buyers of known issues with its furniture.
Dan Mann, a lawyer for the dead child’s family, told the newspaper: “Once a manufacturer admits that a product is dangerous and defective and shouldn’t be in children’s bedrooms … they should do everything that they can to inform consumers and purchasers that the product is defective.”
Indeed. In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services like those offered at USC, but also the damage that can be inflicted on consumers — notably injuries to babies and children — by defective and dangerous products, as the unstable Ikea furniture has proven to be. It is unacceptable that thousands of individuals can be put at risk, significant problems can be exposed in public, and yet those inflicting harm carry on.
The Ikea hazards raise regulatory concerns at a time when news investigations, notably by the Washington Post, have documented lapses by one of the nation’s key watchdog agencies — the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission. Democratic staffers have assailed the agency, headed by a Republican appointee who has since resigned, for its poor performance with high-profile cases involving Britax’s BOB jogging stroller, Fisher-Price’s Rock ‘n Play inclined sleeper, and the safety of residential elevators.
As USA Today reported of falling furniture:
“Unsecured furniture has been an intractable danger for decades. A child dies, on average, once every two weeks when a piece of furniture, television of appliance falls forward on them, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. About 28,000 people are injured in tip-overs every year, more than half of them children.”
So, what are regulators doing about this problem? And, under fire for their lax oversight already, will they act anew about a defective and dangerous product?
As for sexual scandals involving students and misbehaving individuals in authority, they, too, alas, seem to keep occurring — and only after major harm occurs and for a long time. These cases have rolled out involving female gymnasts and Michigan State University and the U.S. Women’s Olympic team, with youngsters and a pedophile coach at Penn State University, at Ohio State University with male athletes and a now-deceased pervy doctor, and at UCLA, with another gynecologist on the school staff.
These cases defy common sense and reasonable expectations of how not only the miscreants acted but also how grownups and trained personnel failed to see abuses occurring in front of them. (At USC, for example, nursing staff and older patients complained to no avail about gynecologist Tyndall, who since also has been criminally charged. At OSU, wrestlers and others told their coaches about inappropriate sexual behaviors with a now-deceased university doctor, with nothing occurring as a result).
It is worth noting in the USC federal settlement that individuals may not receive big sums for the indignity and injury they suffered, and they may need to provide embarrassing details of their experiences to a court-appointed jurist, psychologist, and gynecologist to qualify for any settlement, as the Los Angeles Times reported:
“[T]he payouts to each patient will come in tiers starting with a guaranteed minimum of $2,500 to all women, regardless of whether they formally accused Tyndall of harassment or assault. If women choose to confidentially detail their allegations against Tyndall, they could be eligible for a payment of up to $250,000.”
Lawsuits should not be the only recourse for the harmed. They should be recognized for the beneficial outcomes they can produce, including getting institutions to deal at last with sexual criminals or enterprises to act with vigor about defective goods.
In similar fashion, though critics may decry them, medical malpractice cases can do a world of good, not only providing victims with the financial and medical resources they may need for as much as a lifetime of care after they have been harmed. The suits also can provide real justice to patients, exposing wrong and providing for remedies so injuries and deaths will not occur to others.
It would be great if doctors stepped up and policed their own, especially so the handful of bad practitioners don’t keep injuring or killing patients, such that individuals and families find themselves suing the same few poor performing doctors repeatedly.
That hasn’t happened yet. And defective and dangerous products hang around the markets like bad pennies. And too many vulnerable young people keep getting sexually exploited in institutions that are supposed to educate and protect them. We’ve got a lot of work to do — and the civil justice system is one place to keep seeking to right wrongs.