20 Years Ago This Week: The Stella Liebeck McDonald’s Hot Coffee Trial

As we noted last Friday, August 2014 heralds the twentieth anniversary of one of the most famous civil cases in American history: the Stella Liebeck McDonald’s hot coffee case. Tried on August 8-12 and 15-17, 1994 in New Mexico state court, the case produced a verdict that has continued to reverberate throughout our culture. (Reminder: Liebeck was awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages, a number which was reduced to $160,000 as a result of a patrial contributory negligence finding by the jury. She was also awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages, a figure which was later reduced to $480,000 by the court.). As we have noted in the past, the case settled prior to the issuance of a formal appellate court opinion, and thus, there is no helpful formal account of the matter’s factual and procedural history. This has led to some confusion surrounding the facts, which we’ve attempted to remedy by publishing our Stella Liebeck McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case FAQ. This week, in observance of the trial’s 20th anniversary, we will explore the case in a bit more detail than usual and offer some critical thoughts that go beyond the traditional rhetoric.

Why do so? As the years have passed, the conventional wisdom about the case has begun to shift. For the longest time, the story represented the tale of a negligent consumer who received a large verdict from a sympathetic jury despite her clear contributory negligence. Now, however, a new narrative has emerged. There is now a group that believes that the uproar over the verdict was the result of a nefarious corporate strategy to misrepresent the true underlying facts of the case in an effort promote tort reform. This new line of thinking gained traction with the 2011 release of Susan Saladoff’s editorial documentary, “Hot Coffee.”

Not too long ago, we noticed that one of our favorite blogs, the popular and influential Boing Boing, revisited the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit. In that post, author Cory Doctorow, in introducing a linked piece by Alex Mayyasi of Priceonomics, noted as follows: “Remember the old lady who sued McDonald’s for millions because she burned herself by spilling hot coffee in her lap? It never happened. What actually happened was much more sordid, and the deliberate distortion of the story — which is ultimately about a company that caused repeated, horrific and preventable injury to its customers — is a tidy story about how corporations have convinced us that they are victims of out-of-control tort lawyers.” In his article, Mayyasi argues that the verdict led to efforts to erode the Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial. Countering the argument that the case is an example of the need for tort reform, Mayyashi contends that the traditional understanding of the Liebeck case is “incredibly distorted.,” as Liebeck herself “was not greedy and her lawsuit was not frivolous.” He goes so far to conclude that the Liebeck case is “an example of America’s civil justice system working as intended.”

In his piece, Mayyasi relies a good bit on Saladoff, a former plaintiff’s attorney about whom we have previously written here. In so doing, Mayyashi shares Saladoff’s belief that “frivolous lawsuits” are a “myth.” (Were that truly the case, we’d have little to discuss here at Abnormal Use.). To his credit, Mayyasi identifies Saladoff as a “former trial lawyer” who has “represented clients in liability lawsuits” and suggests later in the article that “as a trial lawyer . . . [she] is not an objective outsider but someone building a case for her side.” (Many media outlets, in reviewing or reporting on “Hot Coffee,” neglected to mention Saladoff’s history.). Further, despite Doctorow’s tough introduction to the piece, Mayyasi concedes several points, including the fact that “[c]offee is often served commercially at temperatures approaching or equal to that served to Stella Liebeck; finding Liebeck 80% or 100% responsible may be reasonable.” He also indicates that the McDonald’s representatives’ purported lack of concern about the alleged 700 complaints of hot beverage related incidents “may have seen reasonable given the scale of McDonald’s operation.” Those are some significant statements in a piece dedicated to Liebeck case and the purported erosion of the right to a jury trial.

Here’s how Mayyasi’s described the facts of the Liebeck case:

 After Ms. Liebeck bought her coffee and breakfast, her grandson, who was driving, pulled over so she could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Since his Ford Probe had no cup holders, she placed the cup between her legs. When she fumbled with the lid and spilled the coffee on her sweatpants, she began to scream.

….

She went into shock and her grandson rushed her to the emergency room, where she would undergo surgery and receive skin grafts. She had third degree burns on 6% of her body; the pictures of her injuries are shocking.

It is the gruesome photographs of Ms. Liebeck’s injuries – recently receiving prominence in Saladoff’s documentary – which have convinced many that Ms. Liebeck’s case must have had some merit. Despite the severity of her injuries, Liebeck elected to place the cup of coffee – with its warning “contents hot” emblazoned thereupon – precariously between her legs in attempt to open it and place her cream and sugar therein. How is it a distortion to recite those facts and argue that Liebeck’s contributory negligence should have barred her recovery outright? Can one not argue that the jury got it wrong, or that the defense should have presented a better case with the facts as known? (Interestingly, it is not entirely correct to say that “[Liebeck's] grandson rushed her to the emergency room.” Rather, her grandson, Chris Tiano, testified at the trial that after the spill he traveled to the Albuquerque Country Club to pick up a paycheck before taking his grandmother to the hospital.).

This week, we’ll explore these issues fully and even offer some interesting trivia about the case and even some of the witnesses. We hope you’ll offer your own thoughts on the case, as well.

Comments

  1. Great post, Jim. I remember the McDonald’s case from my childhood. Even back then, we (4th and 5th graders) joked about the “hot coffee case.” It’s not often that a civil trial commands the attention of elementary students…. Reading your post has me thinking about how the case might have affected corporate policies on serving coffee. As I bought my brew this morning from Dunkin’ Donuts, I had a realization that most fast food chains now insist on adding cream and sugar for you, before delivering the coffee to your car in the drive-through. (In the past, it seems like the restaurants merely gave you the cream/sugar to the customer to season to taste, which was my preference) There could be a number of explanations of the perceived change: Adapting to consumer preferences? Improved sugar/cream-injecting machinery and technology? Or perhaps corporate aversion to the risk of the next “hot coffee” lawsuit from a customer straddling his/her hot beverage to personally add cream and sugar? Looking forward to your continued analysis on this fascinating case.

  2. Okay, so maybe the jury “should have” found Stella primarily at fault; maybe they bought a bogus argument about previous complaints; maybe coffee that’s no hotter than the next guy’s coffee is per se reasonable because everybody else does the same thing; maybe defense counsel were inept; maybe plaintiff’s counsel were slick. Just as the Supreme Court isn’t last because it’s always right but always right because it’s last, the jury is always right because the jury, not the Monday morning quarterbacks (with the significant exception of the trial judge and the appellate courts), decides the result. McDonald’s could have let the appellate courts decide what to do with the case; instead they settled.
    I once got a jury verdict for injury from a fish bone in a fish filet served to a kid at a cafeteria. Though the evidence was that filets by definition don’t contain bones and expert testimony showed that it’s entirely possible to set your processing machinery so as to avoid bones in filets, the particular Monday morning quarterbacks who had some actual authority (the state supreme court) took away the verdict on the basis that you just can’t be surprised at a fish bone in a piece of fish.
    You will never reach perfection in any dispute resolution system because justice is viewpoint-dependent. For every plaintiff who gets more than he or she deserves there’s many another who, by some folks’ lights, deserves something but gets nothing. Where’s the outrage about that?

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