McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case: Improper Subject of Closing Argument

For better or worse, the infamous Stella Liebeck McDonald’s hot coffee case filtered through our legal system and staked its claim in the mainstream media. Despite the fanfare surrounding that case, few know all the in’s and out’s of the case from either the plaintiff’s or the defendant’s perspective. Perhaps playing on the ignorance of the general populace, supporters of both tort reform and social justice movements have used the case as propaganda to support their causes. We suppose there is no harm done in using the case as a means of persuading the public. But what would happen if the case was used to sway a jury? Looking deep into the legal vault, the Utah Supreme Court gives us its answer to the question.

In Boyle v. Christensen, 251 P.3d 810 (Utah 2011), the plaintiff was injured when struck by a truck while walking in a crosswalk.  After the defendant truck driver admitted liability, the case proceeded to trial on the issue of damages.  During closing arguments, counsel for the defendant responded to the plaintiff’s request for damages as a result of pain and suffering with the following:

Ladies and gentlemen, they want a lot of money for this. A lot of money. What’s been written on the board is called a per diem analysis…. How many days has it been since the accident? How many days for the rest of his life. And how much per day is that worth? That’s what’s been done here. That’s how we get verdicts like in the McDonald’s case with a cup of coffee.

Whoa!  Did that come out of nowhere?  Plaintiff’s counsel sure thought so, immediately objecting to the reference as prejudicial and not in evidence.  The objection was overruled, and the jury returned a verdict of $62,500, about one-seventh of that sought by the plaintiff.  Not satisfied with the result and the reference to the infamous hot coffee case, the plaintiff appealed.

After the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment, the Utah Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case to the trial court.  In finding that the reference to the McDonald’s hot coffee case was improper, the Court discussed at-length the general public ignorance of the facts of the McDonald’s case and recited the standard pro-Liebeck talking points (i.e. coffee measured 180-190 degrees, McDonald’s received 700 previous complaints, etc.).  Given this perceived ignorance, the Court stated:

Given the uniquely iconic nature of this case, the passion it has produced in the media, and the general misunderstanding of the totality of its facts and reasoning among the public, we find it hard to imagine a scenario where it would be proper for a party’s counsel to refer to it before a jury. Generally, as here, such a reference would seem to have the sole purpose of recalling the public outrage over isolated elements of the case—thus improperly appealing to a jury’s passions. It is not the jury’s job to make legal determinations, so no legal arguments from the case are relevant. The facts in the McDonald’s coffee case were not in evidence before this jury and were also utterly irrelevant. Indeed, the one attempt counsel made to make her reference seem relevant was a misrepresentation because the high punitive damages award in the McDonald’s coffee case had nothing to do with a per diem analysis. It is certainly unfair to require the other party to clarify all the misconceptions about this irrelevant case in the limited time allotted for closing argument. The great latitude provided in closing arguments regards reasonable inferences about evidence properly before the jury and does not extend to misrepresentations or efforts to appeal to a jury’s passions. Thus the reference to the McDonald’s coffee case in closing argument was improper.

While we may disagree with some of the Court’s talking points, we have to agree that the reference to the McDonald’s case was improper in this context.  The jury should be deciding the case based on the facts at hand and not based on whatever misconceptions they may have about another case tried in another jurisdiction years before.  Interestingly, it appears that defense counsel may have been equally ignorant of the facts of the McDonald’s case as those sitting in the jury box.  As the Court correctly noted, the high punitive damages awarded in the McDonald’s case were based on two days of coffee sales and not the per diem analysis used to calculate pain and suffering to which he was arguing.

There is nothing wrong with continuing to discuss the McDonald’s case.  We do it a lot here at Abnormal Use.  However, we should keep it in its proper context and out of the courtroom.

And, for good measure, let’s try to know the facts before bringing the case up in public.

(Hat Tip: Eric Nordstrom).

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