I tend to be fairly conservative about economic issues. I am strongly capitalist and pro-business. But working for a law firm that files many civil suits, including punitive damages claims, has reshaped my views on the necessity of litigation against corporations who, for higher profit, clandestinely act in ways that endanger human life.
To be fair, I can tell stories of unethical ambulance chasers who take garbage lawsuits to trial with the hopes of persuading juries of imbeciles to award large cash judgments. I think the notorious case of the woman who sued McDonald's after she spilt coffee all over herself belongs in the unethical category (though some respectfully disagree). I also find the tobacco comapny lawsuits dubious, and the "I'm fat because your food that I chose to ate is too fattening" lawsuits sickening.
But there are cases in which corporations consciously decide to endanger human life, weighing the costs of implementing measures to reduce danger against the costs of potential lawsuits when people die or suffer critical injuries. If a Fortune 500 company loses a $3 million compensatory damages claim, that's a drop in the bucket. That's why there's punitive damages.
I find the idea that consumers should be responsible for their own choices fairly compelling. But in cases where they have no reasonable way of obtaining information that their choices to make use of a product or service could be life-threatening or dangerous, the argument that they are responsible for their behavior is nullified.
Anyway, I find the debate between pro-business and pro-consumer advocates over punitive damages interesting since I see both sides. I definitely think people should temper their anti-corporation hatred by observing that life expectancy in this age of the corporation continues to increase at a huge rate (compared with past historical periods) and that quality of life, to me at least, is also increasing astronomically.
A couple of people commented after this writeup about the McDonalds coffee case. They feel that the case was legitimate because of a few facts: coffee was too hot to drink, lid didn't function properly, McDonalds knew these things and didn't remedy the situation. I've been through this debate before. My belief is that a reasonable person is responsible when he spills hot coffee on himself, lid, no lid, or faulty lid. When I get coffee at Starbucks, I don't think to myself--I don't have to worry about spilling it, there's a lid.