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Hot Coffee Premieres as Fresh Air


Hot coffee, McDonalds and tort reform have become strange bed-fellows since a verdict was delivered against the McDonalds Corporation by a jury; for severe injuries to 79 year old Stella Liebeck, caused by spilled coffee.

To people who believe Corporate America needs protecting, the McDonalds coffee case became a poster child for what they claimed was wrong with the civil justice system. Of course, the tort reformers version provides only pieces and parts of the real story – just enough for them to weave it into a new story that stands for what they need it to illustrate. But, do not be fooled; there are few real facts in the tort reformers’ version of the case.

At the recent Sundance Festival, a former lawyer, Susan Saladoff, has built a bonfire around a new film she produced called “Hot Coffee”. The film is a documentary that does not take pieces and parts of the McDonalds coffee case. Rather, this is honest and factual testimony of what really happened and the very understandable reason why a jury would deliver a verdict of $2.8 million against the McDonald’s Corporation for spilled coffee.

The real facts of what happened that day in 1992, are significantly different from those that tort reformers fabricate to fit their own needs:

  • Ms. Liebeck was NOT driving; she was a passenger in a car driven by her grandson.
  • Ms. Liebeck did NOT place the coffee on the dash and the spill was not caused by her driving off while the coffee sat on the dash.
  • Ms. Liebeck was simply removing the plastic lid from the coffee cup when it spilled.
  • The ultimate verdict entered by the court was NOT $2.8 million.
  • Ms. Liebeck was found 20% comparatively negligent; a finding by the jury that, based on the facts, was probably not unreasonable.
  • The court system worked properly. Ms. Liebeck’s award for physical injuries was reduced from $200,000 to $160,000 for her share of comparative negligence.
  • The verdict of $2.6 million for punitive damages awarded by the jurors was ultimately reduced to $480,000.

Did the jury get wildly out of control in awarding the original $200,000 for Ms. Liedeck’s physical injuries? Ms. Liedeck suffered 3rd degree burns over 6% of her total body. Her physicians treated severe third degree burns to Ms. Liedeck’s inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. This 79 year old lady was hospitalized for eight days and underwent numerous skin graftings and débridements (scraping of dead skin tissue away from undamaged tissue).

Before any lawsuits were filed, Ms. Liedeck asked McDonalds to compensate her for her injuries and made claim for $20,000. McDonalds offered to pay Ms. Liedeck $800.

What were some of the things that McDonalds alleged and evidence heard that could have made their callous conduct more unappealing to the jurors and to the court?

  • McDonalds claimed that Ms. Liebeck was old and, so her injuries were worse, but they should not be liable for the severity of her injuries simply because she was old.
  • Ms. Liebeck’s clothing may have held the hot coffee against her skin causing the burns and, presumably, that this 79 year old lady should have stripped quickly in her grandson’s car to avoid the severe injuries she suffered.
  • McDonalds produced documents demonstrating more than 700 people who had been burned by their coffee, but their experts testified that the number was trivial.
  • McDonalds quality assurance manager acknowledged that the temperature at which McDonalds maintained its coffee (180° F) would cause severe burns, but that McDonalds had absolutely no intention of reducing the temperature because they sold over $1.3 million PER DAY in coffee.
  • McDonalds claimed that customers were generally buying coffee to drink after they reached their place of work or other destination and this required the coffee be delivered at temperatures of 180°. McDonalds research documented by their production was that the largest number of customers were buying coffee to drink immediately, while they were driving to work.

The tort reformers are fond of claiming that the civil justice system was designed to deter “wrongdoing” and not to compensate for injuries. The civil justice system was designed for the very goal of trying to compensate injured people or entities for damages caused by the wrongdoing of others. The civil justice system is laid upon the notion that negligence happens and that negligence by its very definition is unintended. It was only when court’s realized that something far beyond negligence could occur; that callous indifference and reckless disregard for safety began being practiced by Corporate America was the system adapted to permit punitive damages designed to deter outrageous conduct. It is the reckless conduct that can be deterred, but seems to continue.

In this case, the judge who presided over the trial reduced the $2.6 million in damages intended to deter McDonalds from their conduct to only $480,000, but in doing so, the judge characterized McDonald’s conduct as “reckless, callous and willful”.

In summary, tort reformers are fond of distorting the facts of the coffee case because, without distorting those facts, they are left with:

A corporation who admits their product is dangerous to consumers.

A corporation who admits their product as served causes severe 3rd degree burns, but reducing the temperature from 180° to 155° would avoid , the severest of those injuries.

A corporation who made $1.3 million dollars per day selling its product “as is” and boldly refused to change anything about the product to make it safer.

A corporation who was asked and who refused to compensate a victim in a reasonable amount.

A jury who, faced by the corporation’s lack of remorse, awarded amounts intended to punish the corporation, which amounted to only around (2) day’s loss of sales for the corporation.

An ultimate punitive damage verdict (designed to deter corporations’ future reckless conduct) that amounted to little more than 1/3 of one day’s sales

In the “light of day” the tort reformer crowd is simply lying in an effort to move their own corporate agenda forward and to deny individuals the basic rights promised by the constitution. In the light of day, tort reformers would not need to fabricate their agendas by attempting to appear as champions for average citizens. In the light of day, tort reformers would appear to the public as the corporations, lobbyists and political cronies that they actually are.

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Posted By: Clinton Cimring