20 Years of McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case Rhetoric

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Since the birth of Abnormal Use way back in 2010, we have written much about Stella Liebeck and the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee case. There was no conscious plan to focus on this matter, but sometimes, things simply fall into place. When we published our initial post on Susan Saladoff’s “Hot Coffee documentary back on January 24, 2011, and our accompanying Stella Liebeck FAQ file the following day, we did not predict we would revisit the case as often as we ultimately have. However, within just a few months, those posts generated a friendly retort from a popular social justice blog, a shoutout on National Public Radio, and a mention in, of all things, The New York Times. Abnormal Use would never be the same, and as the years have passed, we have attempted to learn as much as we can about the underling facts and procedural history of the case. This week, in recognition of the twentieth anniversary of the hot coffee trial, we here at Abnormal Use are offering you some additional thoughts on the case and its legacy.

What is it about a 20 year old New Mexico jury trial that continues to create so much furor today? Sure, the case has crept into our vernacular through its references in pop culture, but why? It is ludicrous when one thinks about the hundreds, if not thousands, of personal injury cases that are filed each and every day, many of which involve allegedly defective products, yet the one that garners the most attention is the one about a single cup of coffee. Certainly, the initial media coverage of a litigant receiving millions of dollars due to a hot coffee spill created much public buzz. The subsequent propaganda – from supporters and opponents of tort reform alike – infused the case with additional life as each side attempted to spin the case facts in its own favor. As Internet blogs continue to revisit the litigation, nearly every one has an opinion on the case.

One need only visit at the comments section of Abnormal Use as evidence of the passion surrounding the case. In fact, our hot coffee posts continue to garner comments – sometimes many years after the dates of those posts’ initial publication. While the readers of Abnormal Use may not be a perfect representative sample of the general populace, those comments are certainly evidence that the hot coffee case is far from ordinary.

The more surprising component of the case is its polarity. It seems that one cannot now engage in an objective discussion of the case without first declaring one’s self, “Team Liebeck” or “Team McDonald’s” (or, worse, “Team Tort Reform” or “Team Social Justice”). The caustic nature of the debate is worsened by a general lack of public knowledge of the true facts of the case. Additionally, many advocates stress only those “facts” they chooses to hear while ignoring others that don’t fit nicely into their theory of the case (suggesting that all of us will continue to relitigate the case well into the future).

The opinions on the case tend to fall into one of two categories. There are those who stress the liability issues and those who focus on the damages. The talking points for both camps have been rehashed and recycled many, many times (often without reference to the specific motions or testimony in the case). Yet, each camp has its flaws. Those who argue Liebeck’s contributory negligence run the risk of seeming unsympathetic to her rather severe injuries. Conversely, those who focus on those horrific injuries often overlook the fact that damages are only one element of a negligence claim – an element that is not addressed unless it is first shown that the defendant’s conduct was, in fact, negligent. Neither side is necessarily disingenuous; however, they don’t always see the whole picture of the case when focusing on singular components.

In looking back over the past 20 years, what is the real effect of the Liebeck verdict? Other than providing talking points for lawyers and staking a claim in pop culture, not much. People still drink coffee. They still like their coffee to be served piping hot. Restaurants still serve coffee at temperatures within the range served to Liebeck by McDonald’s in New Mexico that fateful day in February of 1992. At the end of the day, Liebeck v. McDonald’s has provided us with a discourse to advocate for certain platforms. This is not to say that the hot coffee case doesn’t remain important after 20 years. But in the end, these days, it’s mostly just rhetoric.

Buckyballs Dies, Fight Against CPSC Continues

Several weeks ago, we here at Abnormal Use lamented the death of Buckyballs, the controversial desktop magnet, after its two year fight with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (“CPSC”). The Buckyballs saga grabbed our attention from the outset after Buckyballs’ CEO Craig Zucker publicly ridiculed the CPSC’s draconian measures. As traditionally harsh critics of the CPSC, we applauded Zucker’s efforts and were saddened when Zucker finally succumbed to the CPSC back in May.

Little did we know, there still remains a ring bearer in the Fellowship of Magnets.

According to a report from Reason.com, Colorado-based Zen Magnets continues to fight against the CPSC over the right to manufacture and distribute spherical magnets. Shihan Qu of Zen Magnets described to Reason his ongoing fight as follows:

I have two very distinct but related motives for continuing this fight.

The first one is obvious. I want to win. I want to keep selling magnets. I want to continue seeing the passion, joy, and inspiration they bring. I want to stay in business. I want to see a victory for magnets.

But number two, I want the CPSC to LOSE. I really really want them to lose. They need some humility and to be reminded of the standard of liberty in this country.

The single biggest issue that must be challenged, the aspect that makes this a landmark case, is that this is the first time the CPSC is arguing that warnings don’t work, which has incredibly vast policy implications. Putting warnings on this is mostly what the CPSC does. Small parts, choking hazards, etc.

Warnings are a sort of agreement a customer accepts upon use of a product. And by assuming that people cannot follow — by the way, there is still nobody who can confirm even a single Zen Magnet ingestion incident — instructions to keep magnets away from children and mouths, they are assuming the American Population is not capable of deciding for themselves. They are taking your right to consent, and fleecing your freedom to do as you will.

We’re the last line of defense, and if Zen Magnets doesn’t stand up, the CPSC gains a remarkable amount of power from consumers. They show the ability to determine behind their closed walls, what America can and can’t have, despite roaring public opposition. They set the precedence of creating an all-ages, nation-wide ban, with the assumption that an American cannot be “expected” to understand or follow warnings.

We must applaud Zen for continuing the sojourn. We are particularly intrigued by the company’s thoughts on product warnings. While we do not believe that a warning label should grant a license to sell any product, we, too, have often questioned why the CPSC had problems with these magnets despite what appears to be appropriate warnings. In this case, the CPSC seems to belittle our sense of free will and decision-making at the expense of these companies. Regulation can serve its purpose, but it shouldn’t deprive us of our own ability to self-govern. Unfortunately, we fear Zen will ultimately share a similar fate with Buckyballs. Nonetheless, we applaud its efforts.

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).

Wedding Disasters: Funny Stories Or Lawsuit Worthy?

Weddings are a big deal. Couples  spend thousands of dollars to make sure every tiny detail is perfect. Unfortunately, however, there is no guarantee the ceremony will go off without a hitch. Even when spending a small fortune, a wedding can be ruined by a rain shower or an intoxicated participant. Sometimes, the “disaster” transitions into a humorous story after time removes the scarring. Other times, the disaster is so egregious that it might just lead to a lawsuit. It is a fine line, to be sure. Recently, a South Carolina couple has alleged that they found themselves on the wrong side of that line. But let’s allow you to judge.

According to a report out of the Daily Mail, a Charleston couple claims that their 2013 wedding was ruined after a man exposed his genitalia during their ceremony in the courtyard of the Doubletree Inn. Apparently, a naked hotel guest decided that he wanted to take part in the ceremony by standing in front of an open window overlooking the courtyard in all his glory. This curious event transpired after the couple was allegedly assured by hotel management that the ceremony would not be disrupted by hotel guests not in attendance. As a result, the couple and the bride’s parents have filed suit against City Market Hotels seeking actual and punitive damages for negligence and emotional distress. The streaker is not named as a defendant.

We understand the couple’s frustration. You only get one wedding day with your partner. Now, this couple’s special day will always be marred by the actions of a creeper. The question is, however, what, if anything, is this suit worth? Certainly, like any business transaction, if you don’t get what you pay for, you should be able to ask for a refund. Our guess is that if that was all the couple wanted, then there would have been no reason to file suit.

For some, an event such as this is so unconscionable that it will forever cause anguish. For others, it leads to a heck of a funny story from an otherwise bland wedding. We imagine the jury pool will be made up of those on both side of the divide. Whether or not the couple recovers, this event will make for a story they will one day tell their grandchildren. Of course, a good laugh will ensue.

R.I.P. Buckyballs

Buckyballs, we hardly knew ye. Last week, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a formal recall of the controversial product, putting an end to the two year fight with the product manufacturer. The recall comes on the heels of a well-publicized fight between the CPSC and Buckyballs’ CEO Craig Zucker. After the company openly mocked the CPSC’s efforts to ban the spherically-shaped magnets, the CPSC, in an unprecedented move, went after Zucker personally. While Zucker fought valiantly, he eventually succumbed to the CPSC back in May, agreeing to place $375,000 in trust to facilitate the recall.

We here at Abnormal Use are in a state of mourning now that the recall has come to fruition. Not just because we question the motives of the CPSC. Not even because the Buckyballs saga has been a great source of blog fodder. But, rather, because we respected the fight in Zucker. It is one thing for us to criticize the CPSC behind the protection of our computers. It is quite another to directly challenge the CPSC’s methods.

Never again will we see the likes classic CPSC burns like:

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or

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Zucker and Buckyballs are the Secretariat of the product recall world. There will never be another. Like DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Buckyballs will never be forgotten. We all knew it had to end at some point, but, unfortunately, it was the CPSC that had to be Zucker’s game 57.

“Too Fast” Bat Decision Upheld By Tenth Circuit

Not too long ago, we reported on the decision of an Oklahoma federal court to toss a $951,000 jury verdict against Hillerich and Bradsby, the manufacturer of Louisville Slugger baseball bats. As you may recall, the jury had awarded a 15-year old boy and his parents nearly $1 million after he was struck in the face by a line drive, causing severe facial injuries. In reaching its decision, the jury determined that the aluminum bat was defective and unreasonably dangerous because it could hit a ball faster than its wooden counterparts – a condition for which Louisville Slugger failed to warn. Moreover, it determined that the boy did not assume the risk of injury when electing to play baseball. The court held, however, that there was “no basis for a reasonable jury to find that the bat had ‘dangerous characteristics.’”

In an unpublished decision, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed the trial court’s decision to grant Hellerich’s motion for judgment as a matter of law. In a well-written opinion, the Court examined the plaintiff’s theory that the bat was unreasonably dangerous because it hit a ball “too fast.” In order to recover on such a theory, logically the plaintiff would need to show the the speed of a ball off of an “ordinary” bat versus the speed of the ball off of the bat at issue. Because the plaintiff produced no objective evidence of either component, the Court held that the district court judge did not err in correcting the jury’s verdict on defective design. The opinion can be found at Yeaman v. Hillerich & Bradsby Co., No. 12-6254 (10th. Cir. June 30. 2014).

While this case involves a much different set of facts and rests on a different theory of recovery, it is an interesting contrast to the recent flying hot dog opinion in which the court held that the risk of being hit by a flying dog was not inherent to baseball and, thus, a baseball team could not be shielded from liability. The risks of being injured by a ball struck by a bat are clearly inherent to the game. This Louisville Slugger case, on the other hand, attempted to establish that the bat was somehow unreasonably dangerous beyond those inherent risks. An interesting theory, to be sure. While the jury may have bought it, the court saw otherwise.

Flying Hot Dogs Not Inherent To The Game of Baseball, Says Missouri Supreme Court

If you follow Anne Coulter’s reasoning, we assume you aren’t caught up in the World Cup craziness. As such, you are left to focus on America’s pastime, baseball, in order to get your sports fix for the summer. Baseball is a fine sport, to be sure, but things often get a little boring at this point in the season. Thankfully, the Missouri Supreme Court has finally issued its opinion in the now infamous flying hotdog case, Coomer v. Kansas City Royals Baseball Corp., No. SC93214 (Mo. June 24, 2014), to spice up the mid-season doldrums. Of course, we had to review and comment upon this important piece of jurisprudence.

For those new to the case, the facts are these: Coomer is an avid baseball fan who had been to approximately 175 Kansas City Royals games. In September 2009, during game number 176, Coomer was hit in the face by a hotdog thrown by the Royals mascot, Sluggerrr. The impact of the flying dog allegedly caused Coomer to sustain a detached retina. Thereafter, as you might expect if you regularly read this blog, Coomer sued the Royals. The case proceeded to trial, and the jury charged as to whether the risk of being hit by a hot dog was inherent in attending a Royals game. After receiving this charge, the jury returned a defense verdict, allocating 100 percent of the fault to Coomer himself. In a lengthy opinion, the Missouri Supreme Court vacated the jury’s decision and remanded the case. At issue in the case was the so-called “Baseball Rule” which essentially protects teams from risks that are inherent to the game, i.e. foul balls entering the stands. According to the Court, the members of which have apparently never heard “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the risk of being injured by Sluggerrr’s hot dog toss is not one of the inherent risks of watching a Royals home game. Because assumption of risk is a question of law, the Court held that it was an error to charge the jury on the issue and that such a charge was prejudicial.

Admittedly, when we here at Abnormal Use first heard about this case, we were skeptical. It is not uncommon to see vendors tossing food to fans at a baseball game. (Note: Sluggerr’s official website indicates that he throws hot dogs.). Plus, the thought of a flying hot dog injury sounds absurd on its face. Nonetheless, we must actually agree with the Missouri Supreme Court in this instance. As crazy as a flying hot dog might sound, we don’t believe it is necessarily a risk inherent to the game of baseball nor do we believe it is within the intended scope of the “Baseball Rule.” Unlike a foul ball, this type of harm could more easily be avoided albeit to the dismay of food tossing mascots everywhere.

If this case is tried again, the jury could always return the same result if it finds Coomer was negligent in some manner by not preparing himself to catch the dog (who knows?). The real impact of this decision may not be felt by Coomer but by sports teams nationwide. Certainly, teams will have to think twice before allowing mascots to distribute items to fans by hand toss or t-shirt gun. Which begs the question, what else do mascots actually do?

Synthetic Marijuana Gets Tangible Victory in California

Last week, an Oakland County, California jury ruled in favor of the defendants in a wrongful death case involving synthetic marijuana. The Estate of John Anthony Sdao filed suit against Yassmine Wholesalers, the distributor of the substance, and a local gas station after Sdao, 20, committed suicide after smoking K2, a brand of synthetic marijuana. The sale of synthetic marijuana was legal at the time of the event, but it has now been banned by California law. The plaintiff presented evidence at trial of numerous other suicides which allegedly occurred as a result of using the substance. Apparently, the jury didn’t buy it under the facts of this case.

We here at Abnormal Use have not seen the verdict form nor are we aware of the full scope of evidence presented at trial. Lee Ann Rutila, who represented Yassmine, had this to say about the result:

We were pleased with the result, and I guess we’re not surprised. . . . They were basically unable to say that the suicide really wouldn’t have happened otherwise. It could have happened with or without the K2. They couldn’t put that as being the contributing factor.

Dean Kallas, who represented the gas station that was accused of selling the product to Sdao, added:

It always appeared that the suicide was unrelated to the product, and that’s been our defense all along, and that’s why I believe the jury came to the conclusions they came to.

The plaintiff apparently plans to appeal the verdict. However, the reports are not clear as to the grounds of any such appeal.

The case of synthetic marijuana is an interesting one. In the shadow of Four Loko, it is difficult to gauge how a jury may handle a product which, while legal at the time of the injury, has been banned by the time of trial. In this case, the personal accountability of the decedent apparently also played a role in the jury’s decision. Proving that it was the product, and not the decedent’s own tendencies, that caused the suicide is a difficult burden to bear.

Despite the result in this trial, we expect to see more of these synthetic marijuana cases in the future. We will be sure to keep you posted.

TinctureBelle Responds To Pot-Candy Trademark Suit

Last week, we wrote about a new trademark infringement lawsuit filed by Hershey against marijuana-candy manufacturer TinctureBelle. The gist of the Hershey’s lawsuit is that TinctureBelle allegedly ripped-off the branding of Hershey candy in marketing the pot candy. Now, TinctureBelle President Char Mayes has responded to the lawsuit with the following statement:

The lawsuit from Hershey came as a huge surprise to us because we changed our entire label line approximately 6 months ago, long before these allegations surfaced last week. Our new packaging looks nothing like Hershey’s or anyone else’s. . . . The suggestion made by some media reports that our products are available to children, and even sold side-by-side with Hershey products, is dumbfounding, and shows a profound lack of awareness of how infused cannabis products are regulated, manufactured, and sold under Colorado’s strict regulatory regime.

Mayes provided the Washington Post with the following photos as evidence of the change:

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We here at Abnormal Use must admit that we much prefer the original Hersheyesque packaging to the TinctureBelle revisions. Of course, opinions similar to these are probably what inspired the suit in the first place. If the packaging was, in fact, changed six months ago, however, what is Hershey really seeking to accomplish? A share of TinctureBelle’s pre-alteration proceeds? Seeing as all marijuana has only been legal in Colorado for six months and, thus, the only pre-alteration proceeds would have been from the medicinal sale of the candy, we doubt Hershey will have a lucrative end game.

This lawsuit has all the makings of a Bucky Balls-type fight. We will be sure to keep you posted as events transpire.

Legal Marijuana Candy Sees First Trademark Suit in Colorado

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A hot topic of recent months has been the legalization of marijuana. After the State of Colorado legalized it, we here at Abnormal Use wondered what legal problems might arise when those laws went into effect earlier this year. We certainly suspected that there would be litigation, but a new suit filed in federal court  is not exactly what we had in mind. The Hershey Company has filed suit against TinctureBelle, LLC, alleging that the Colorado candy manufacturer’s marijuana-infused chocolates improperly mimic the names of famous Hershey products. According to a report from Denver’s ABC-7:

The lawsuit argues: “Defendants, who are well aware of the fame and popularity of these Hershey products and marks, are manufacturing and selling cannabis- and/or tetrahydrocannabinol-laced chocolate and candy products using names, marks and designs that are knock-offs of Hershey’s famous REESE’S, HEATH, ALMOND JOY and YORK trademarks and trade dresses, in order to increase sales of defendants’ cannabis and tetrahydrocannabinol candy products, draw additional attention to their products, confuse consumers as to the source of their products, call to consumers’ minds Hershey’s famous and beloved brands, and otherwise to trade on the goodwill of Hershey and its brands.”

We understand Hershey’s concerns about trademark infringement, but surely it is an honor to be the first company honored by legal pot candy. It is difficult to get too upset with TinctureBelle when its creativity inspired names such as “Hashees” (Reese’s) and “Ganja Joy” (Almond Joy). Again, Hershey has the right to be concerned about trademark confusion, and we certainly understand the basis for the litigation. On the other hand, we seriously doubt consumers are buying these products because of their resemblance to Hershey products. After all, TinctureBelle has its own secret ingredients.