Generally speaking there are three types of product liability lawsuits, these include:
- Defectively designed products- that had sound design but experienced errors during shipping or manufacture
- Defectively manufactured products that are correctly assembled but are flawed or dangerous in design
- Products that fail to properly warn consumers of the danger or the product or its proper handling/use. Also refered to as "defective marketing"
Skechers toning shoes faced two major separate mass lawsuits in recent years. Toning shoes were created with a rocker sole bottom to purposefully set the user off-balance. This was allegedly to force the wearer to engage little used muscles, toning thighs, calves and buttocks simply by wearing the shoes. The FTC investigated Skechers lofty claims and forced them to pay a $40 million dollar settlement for deceptive advertising- but that wasn't the end of their legal battles. Now consumers are coming forward with serious injuries and complications from wearing the shoes. This second lawsuit categorized as a mass tort differs from the one held by the FTC- each client is given an amount commensurate to their injuries. Generally speaking those who partake in a mass tort have more serious injuries, and will receive a larger settlement. But whose fault is it really?
This lawsuit and ones like has spurred an intense conversation about the possible abuse of the legal system- arguably the most well known being the infamous McDonalds Hot Coffee Lawsuit. In 1994 79 year-old Stella Liebeck burned herself after spilling McDonalds coffee in her lap while attempting to mix in sugar and creamer. When McDonalds refused to refund her medical expenses, Liebeck hired an attorney to represent her.
Little known to many who use the case as a classic example of the abuse of the legal system, her lawyer discovered the coffee is served at 180 degrees- hot enough to cause 3rd degree burns in as little as 12 seconds. During the trial it was revealed McDonalds was already aware of over 700 incidents of burns from the coffee previously. Liebeck was burned over 20% of her body, and required multiple skin grafts, 8 days in the hospital and two years of medical treatment. Pictures on the internet detailing the third degree burns and extreme extent of Liebeck's injuries were widely ignored by the case's naysayers. Many also choose to omit that Stella was in fact held partially liable. Using the concept of comparative negligence McDonalds was found 80% at fault and Stella 20% at fault for physically spilling the coffee, thus reducing her final settlement to $480,000. The initial amount made famous by the media, $2.7million, had already been reduced by the case's overseeing judge.
By creating a shoe that in their words, "are designed to affect the wearer's balance", Sketchers placed liability on themselves for any falls or injuries that may result. Although many of the falls left victims unscathed, many victims (some elderly) experienced serious injuries, including:
- broken toes and legs
- head injuries from the fall
- fractured ankles
- chronic pain
- achilles tendonitis
- bone fractures
- plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the connective tissue of the sole of the foot)
Following the FTC lawsuit a representative from the company still insists wearing the shoes, "can lead to increased leg muscle activation, increased calorie burn, improved posture and reduced back pain." But researchers at WebMD and the University of Wisconsin- La Crosse say otherwise. In an independent study scientists found, "there was no significant difference in calories burned or muscle usage", when compared to traditional shoes. Skechers continues to sell the shoes for $85 dollars a pair claiming they are a superior shoe- albeit, with discrete asterisks next to the claims.
The courts remain the only place the average citizen can hold corporations responsible for their negligence. Many companies and the media used the Hot Coffee case to push tort reform- to reduce consumer's rights and power in the legal system. The majority of large corporations from car manufacturers to restaurants employ fleets of attorneys to protect their interests and their bottom line, yet it is consumers who are painted as being greedy and self serving. Skechers and other toning shoe companies pulled in more than $1 billion dollars in a single year from toning shoe sales, and continue to sell the shoes with unsubstantiated claims. It's estimated that McDonalds currently makes $1.35 million a day on coffee sales, making Liebeck's final settlement approximately a third of the company's daily coffee sales. As with all cases, a jury and judge overseeing the case decides what is truly a frivolous and what is not.