A Challenge to Reed Morgan, the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Plaintiff’s Attorney: Release the Trial Transcript!
The sinister suggestion that major corporations have conspired to use the Stella Liebeck McDonald’s hot coffee case as a tool to promote tort reform is odd, although film maker Susan Saladoff and her pals at the The Pop Tort seem to believe that business interests have spent millions in an effort to make the Plaintiff Stella Liebeck the poster plaintiff for tort reform. That’s one of the themes of Saladoff’s Hot Coffee documentary, which we reviewed yesterday. However, there really isn’t any evidence to prove such a corporate scheme, although as always, the absence of evidence of a conspiracy serves to confirm its success in some eyes.
These allegations of corporate malfeasance prompted some thinking on our part. If the Stella Liebeck case has truly been misrepresented by maleficent corporate interests for the last 17 years, is a documentary by a plaintiff’s attorney like Saladoff the best way to expose it? Wouldn’t the best way to ensure that the public knew the truth be to place as much information in the public record, thereby permitting the public to decide the issue without spin? Saladoff herself must agree in spirit, as part of her film includes her selectively presenting citizens on the street with trial exhibits from the Liebeck case, including photographs of Liebeck’s injuries.
But why be selective in releasing those original source documents?
As we previously noted, the 1994 Liebeck verdict came at a interesting time; the communications infrastructure we rely upon today was in its most nascent stage. Although colleges and universities (as well as early adopters and huge nerds like we here at Abnormal Use) had Internet access, the general public did not, and newspapers did not publish articles online to be relied upon later by armchair researchers. Thus, in this age of information, most of the source material we have on the case is second-hand, at best. These days, when a lawsuit makes the news, the pleadings are instantly published on news organizations’ website. Certainly, courts place many documents on-line, whether it be the federal PACER system or state court docketing systems. But not then. We were years from court records and pleadings being placed on line. In sum, the Liebeck case, filed in New Mexico state court in 1993 and tried in 1994 happened before anyone digitally preserved such things for posterity.
Where does that leave us?
The only parties with access to all relevant information are the McDonald’s corporation and Liebeck’s estate. Despite the protestations of the plaintiff’s bar and Saladoff, the McDonald’s corporation has remained curiously tight-lipped about the case over the past 17 years. There’s no evidence that this major company has engaged in any public relations campaign; and if they had, it has not been very successful, as many people are unaware of the basic facts of the case.
If the plaintiff’s bar truly wishes to expose the “truth” behind the case, then they should look to one of their own: S. Reed Morgan of S. Reed Morgan & Associates (now of the Law Offices of S. Reed Morgan, P.C.) of Comfort, Texas, the lead plaintiff’s attorney who represented Liebeck during the original trial. Presumably, Morgan has a whole host of original material which could shed additional light on the case but which are not currently in the public record. By this, of course, we refer to deposition transcripts, discovery responses, and the trial transcript, none of which is readily available in any form. Allowing the general public, as well as legal scholars and researchers, to review this material would shed much light on the case and allow partisans of any persuasion to use the actual evidence from the actual trial to advance their agendas. (Saladoff had access to at least some of this material, although it’s unclear from whom she obtained it; she told IndieWire that she “was able to secure the transcript of the trial, and then went to Albuquerque where the case was tried, located the family, the lawyers, jurors, the doctor, and started talking to as many people as possible who would talk to me.”)
Some privacy concerns might exist. However, the heirs of Ms. Liebeck could easily address those hurdles and permit the release of any sensitive material. (They were apparently comfortable with Saladoff using photographs of Ms. Liebeck’s injuries.). If her relatives are willing to be interviewed by friendly documentarians about the case, we suspect they would have no problem with releasing these materials for the general public as a whole. If, after all, the goal is for the truth to be revealed, the release of as much information as possible would certainly serve that goal, would it not?
Sure, you ask, wasn’t there a confidential settlement in the case which occurred in December of 1994 which might prohibit the release of such material? We here at Abnormal Use have not seen the language of that agreement (why would we have?). Certainly, it has not kept Ms. Liebeck’s local counsel, New Mexico attorney Kenneth R. Wagner, from being interviewed by Ms. Saladoff in her documentary about the case. Further, the trial transcript is a public document, likely outside the scope of any confidentiality clause. It should be released to the general public, just as it was released to Saladoff for her purposes (but again, by whom, we know not).
Accordingly, we here at Abnormal Use officially challenge Morgan to release these materials to the extent he is permitted to do so under the settlement agreement. Further, we challenge Morgan to consult with Ms. Liebeck’s heirs to secure their permission to release any additional information (particularly Ms. Liebeck’s deposition transcript), to the extent that their permission is needed under relevant law. (Further, we recall something from law school about deceased persons no longer having any right to privacy, anyway.) Certainly, if a fair reading of these materials will result in one agreeing with Morgan and Saladoff, than there is no reason to conceal these materials any longer. However, if they are reluctant to release these materials, what’s all this talk about “truth” then, really?