McDonald’s Coffee Cup Change: Good for the Environment or Potential Legal Fodder?

Last week, McDonald’s announced it was switching from polystyrene (aka Styrofoam) to double-walled paper cups for hot beverages in all of its restaurants. The move is made in response to changing consumer preferences and an increase in environmental consciousness. There’s nothing wrong with that, we suppose. However, whenever McDonald’s acts, it seems as if someone is there to tell us that it is bad. If you are asking why this is reportable news, then let us catch you up on the last 20 years of legal pop culture. For starters, McDonald’s coffee cups (and its coffee) are no strangers to publicity. Ever since Stella Liebeck infamously spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee into her lap back in 1992, McDonald’s coffee has been parodied in major television shows such as “Seinfeld” and has been the cover story of an HBO documentary on the civil justice system. Always a topic of debate among lawyers and non-lawyers alike, it should come as no surprise that when the fast food chain announced a change in material for its hot beverage containers, the news sent the interwebs into a flutter.

The major significance of the announcement is not the reasons for the change, but rather the effect the change may have on future litigation. Inevitably, someone will spill coffee from one of the new cups onto himself and claim that the spill would not have occurred but for the double-walled paper construction. While we have no idea whether there is a financial difference between paper and polystyrene, we wouldn’t be surprised to see an argument in the future that McDonald’s is sacrificing consumer safety in favor of increased profit margins. Such an argument is likely a complete farce, ignoring the valid reasons behind the change. Unfortunately, this is the climate in which McDonald’s and other businesses face.

The environmental impact of a switch away from polystyrene cannot be understated. Given the billions of cups of coffee sold by McDonald’s, the impact is significant. Nonetheless, any change, albeit a good one, made by McDonald’s regarding its coffee production, will undoubtedly find its way into the allegations of a complaint. Remember, you heard it here first.

New Hot Coffee Case Filed In New Jersey

Here we go again. It’s another hot coffee case.

According to NorthJersey.Com, there’s a brand new McDonald’s hot coffee case brewing. (Apologies for that pun). Here’s the info:

A 54-year-old Florida man is seeking damages from McDonald’s Corporation in a lawsuit filed in Hackensack, claiming that he suffered serious burns from a spilled cup of hot coffee while dining at a McDonald’s in River Edge.

This is not the first time McDonald’s coffee inspired a lawsuit.

Francisco Rafael Borbolla said in the lawsuit that restaurant workers gave him a cup of coffee without properly securing the lid when he ordered breakfast at the Main Street eatery in August 2011.

Borbolla’s attorney, Rosemarie Arnold, said the coffee spilled all over Borbolla’s lap as he sat down at a table, causing him “horrendous” second-degree burns that required a trip to the emergency room at the Hackensack University Medical Center.

Arnold insisted on Monday that Borbolla’s lawsuit is not frivolous.

“This is a serious case involving lack of due care on the part of McDonald’s,” she said. “If the naysayers saw the burns on my client’s genitals, they would be speechless.”

Again, let’s not confuse the issue of severe burns with liability. Simply because the coffee in question may have caused injuries, it does not mean that McDonald’s is liable.  That is a mistake that many have made in discussing the infamous Stella Liebeck McDonald’s hot coffee case. We’ve not yet  read the complaint, but if the news report is accurate, then the Plaintiff, Mr. Borbolla, took the cup of coffee from a McDonald’s employee, presumably from the front counter of the restaurant, made his way to his seat, and then spilled the hot beverage on himself as he proceeded to sit down at a table. The liability case will focus extensively on that brief journey.

We’ll keep you posted on this one. Our favorite part of the article is the following sentence, which also serves as the tagline to the AP file photograph of a McDonald’s logo: “This is not the first time McDonald’s coffee inspired a lawsuit.”

A 54-year-old Florida man is seeking damages from McDonald’s Corporation in a lawsuit filed in Hackensack, claiming that he suffered serious burns from a spilled cup of hot coffee while dining at a McDonald’s in River Edge.

This is not the first time McDonald’s coffee inspired a lawsuit.

AP FILE PHOTO
This is not the first time McDonald’s coffee inspired a lawsuit.

Francisco Rafael Borbolla said in the lawsuit that restaurant workers gave him a cup of coffee without properly securing the lid when he ordered breakfast at the Main Street eatery in August 2011.

Borbolla’s attorney, Rosemarie Arnold, said the coffee spilled all over Borbolla’s lap as he sat down at a table, causing him “horrendous” second-degree burns that required a trip to the emergency room at the Hackensack University Medical Center.
Borbolla, of Homestead, Fla., was in Bergen County at the time to visit family, his attorney said.

- See more at: http://www.northjersey.com/news/Florida_man_suing_McDonalds_over_coffee_incident_in_River_Edge.html#sthash.BFvkXgTD.dpuf

McDonald’s Chicken Sandwich Allegedly Causes Voice Change

Well, McDonald’s once again finds itself on the wrong end of a case caption.  According to the New York Post, a gospel singer in Brooklyn, New York has sued the fast food chain claiming that her voice was ruined after biting into a piece of glass found in a chicken sandwich.  The incident, which happened way back in 2010, has allegedly caused the former alto to lose her soprano-status.  In addition, her now raspy voice has others confusing her for a man while on the phone. We suspect they may take this deposition by video.

As with any new lawsuit in its baby stages, we here at Abnormal Use have no idea whether the plaintiff’s claims are valid.  Nonetheless, we know how to defend the case from a damages perspective.  First, how is a voice ruined simply by biting into glass?  At least according to the report, it appears the singer’s allegations suggest she swallowed the glass, thereby damaging her vocal chords.  After knowingly biting into a piece of glass, wouldn’t the next step have been to spit out the food?  It seems some of these damages could have been avoided.

Second, how does one value the difference between an alto and a soprano, assuming the allegation is true?  Does an alto gospel singer find better singing gigs than sopranos?  We recognize that the change may have been unwanted, but it seems like the singer could make the most of the situation and turn this into a positive.

Unfortunately for McDonald’s, unlike the post-verdict, anti-tort reform rhetoric regarding the Stella Liebeck case, this matter won’t be tried on damages alone.  If glass was in the woman’s chicken sandwich, then it certainly should not have been there.  Once that presumed liability hurdle is surpassed, then – and only then – will her damages become an issue.

Photograph of the Day: The Canadian Hot Coffee Warning?

“If this was another country, we’d have to tell you that this coffee may be hot.  Good thing this is Canada!”

We couldn’t resist sharing this photograph above of a Canadian take-out coffee cup, which, not unexpectedly, is making the rounds on the Internet this week.  Twenty three years after Stella Liebeck spilled coffee on herself in the parking lot of a New Mexico McDonald’s, the culture still turns to her lawsuit for commentary and, as the image above indicates, legal humor.

So, today, we direct you back to our helpful Stella Liebeck McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case FAQ, in which we attempted to offer an objective accounting of the case using only the pleadings and contemporary media coverage.  Sure, such an objective, facts-only FAQ won’t earn us a spot on HBO’s documentary line-up, but we are still pretty proud of it.

(Hat tip: Overlawyered).

Taking Issue With “Blame The Lawyers”

While killing time recently, I ran across this rant posted on the Opinion page of CNN.com, written by Dean Obeidallah, who is apparently “a political comedian,” and a former attorney, among other things.  Well, we don’t think he was trying to be funny in this column.

In fact, I take issue with his tone.

Obeidallah’s basic point is that—wait for it–America is too litigious.  Certainly not new material.  He uses a recently-filed lawsuit against the TV doctor personality “Dr. Oz” as the latest evidence for this theory.  Apparently, a diabetic man is suing Dr. Oz because the remedy Dr. Oz suggested caused the man to suffer burns on his feet.  Of course, as Obeidallah notes, the gentleman seems to have ignored some of the basic instructions for the remedy.  You can read more about the lawsuit here.  Obeidallah then continues his column by providing a list of other “ludicrous” lawsuits (although we noticed that he does not mention the infamous Stella Liebeck McDonald’s Hot Coffee case).

Obeidallah’s verdict on the reasons for our litigious society?  A perfunctory “Blame the lawyers” slogan, especially plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyers, who hope for a quick settlement “so that they can do as little work as possible before seeing their own payday,” and “taking a questionable case that will reap you some media coverage and money.”

Now, we here at Abnormal Use have worked with–and against–a number of hard-working, honorable plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyers who are not just good, but great, attorneys.  We’ve also worked with some who didn’t quite hit the mark.

But we’ve met and worked with just as many great and not-so-great lawyers on our own side of the bar.

Despite his anger, Obeidallah does make one point that we don’t see often in such analysis.  There are a “growing number of lawyers out there struggling to make ends meet,” he says.  He might be on to something.  According to a recent Wall Street Journal column, there are approximately 21,800 new legal jobs each year for the approximately 44,000 law school graduates.  Those numbers don’t crunch.  Hungry lawyers, Obeidallah suggests, might be more willing to take a questionable case simply to keep their practices afloat.

There is, of course, a larger conversation in the legal community these days—about the role of law schools, the quality of legal education, and the available jobs for graduates and seasoned lawyers alike.  We will continue to monitor these issues, comment upon them, and invite your input, as well.  We hope that the tone of these discussions remain civils, and don’t always have to be accompanied by column headings as abrasive as Obeidallah’s “Dr. Oz suit is another reason people hate lawyers.”

We think these heavy subjects deserve a more nuanced approach than that.

The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case: Distinguishing Between Facts and Theory

The late paleontologist Stepehen Jay Gould once said, “Facts do not ‘speak for themselves.’ They are read in the light of theory.” We here at Abnormal Use never really understood what Gould meant until we read this editorial by Daniel Leddy at silive.com. The piece, entitled, “Advance legal columnist: Look at all the facts behind outlandish jury awards,” suggests that there is normally a rational explanation found in either the law or the facts when a lawsuit produces a seemingly absurd result. While not all results are warranted, we agree that people should gather all the necessary facts before forming any opinions.That said , Leddy’s opinions on the legitimacy of jury verdicts is not what caught our eye. Rather, it is his one and only case sample – the famed Stella Liebeck McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case.

To demonstrate that not all jury awards are as bad as they seem, Leddy proposed to reveal the “actual facts” of the case. For the most part, the facts Leddy outlines are consistent with those found in our comprehensive FAQ file. While we have both attempted to provide an objective account of the infamous hot coffee case, we ultimately reach different conclusions about the case. So, how can this be?

Stephen Jay Gould was a wise man.

Facts are facts. But, their meaning is all in how you read (or present) them. For example, Leddy indicates that McDonalds served coffee at temperatures close to 190 degrees and that, according to the plaintiff’s expert, liquids at 180 degrees could inflict burns in just a few seconds. All true. However, he omits evidence that Liebeck would have suffered the same burns had the coffee been served at 130 degrees – well below the optimal temperature range (155-160) recommended by the plaintiff’s expert. More actual facts, but these paint a much different picture.

The difference is in theory and what one wants to prove. The facts can’t be changed. They are what they are. Nonetheless, both sides have a job to do. Whether it is the lawyers at trial or legal bloggers some 20 years later, the facts have to be presented in a manner that supports your theory.

Again, we agree with Leddy’s premise that people should learn the facts before forming any rash opinions. However, it is not always that easy. As is the situation with the Liebeck case, the notion that one is going to present you with the “actual facts” so that you can see the truth is misleading. More often than not, those facts are being filtered through a theory and may not be telling the complete story.

We don’t mean to discourage anyone from gathering information. Rather, our purpose is quite the opposite. Just pay attention to your source – whether it is Abnormal Use, Leddy, or anyone else – and form your own theory.

P.S. In light of this fact/theory distinction, we must continue to refer readers interested in the hot coffee case to our FAQ file. The FAQ is a comprehensive, source-based account of any and all information readily available to the public.

On The Perils of Replying To Blog Comments

We here at Abnormal Use encourage our readers to comment on our posts. We can be a bit out-spoken at times (even blunt), so reader comments are a means of encouraging healthy conversation about those issues. Unfortunately, we sometimes allow that conversation to remain one-sided. We love reading your comments. Honestly, we do. When living the double life of the lawyer blogger, it is just hard to find the time to respond in the way you deserve. But one day, we promise to reply to each and every remark.

One day, we promise to reply to the 30 comments to our post about the potential biases of Hot Coffee documentary filmmaker Susan Saladoff. Perhaps, we will finally find the time to respond to one reader who asked:

By the way, exactly how much are you being paid for that “obligation”? I’m very interested in that “pesky little detail” of yours.

Sigh. Soon, we will let her know that we do not represent McDonalds, but we would love to do so, if she could get us connected.

Maybe, when we have a spare moment, we will respond to this comment, posted a year and a half after our story:

WHO WAS TELLING US THAT STORY [Stella Liebeck lawsuit]????? Why is it that Nick Farr, and the others who have posted demeaning and insulting comments about Susan Saladoff, did not ask themselves that question? Why is it that these folks did not ask themselves what the motivation was for the people who decided to circulate that total distortation of Stella Leibeck’s case?

When we have time, we will let her know that our goal has always been to put forward as much factual information as is available on the McDonalds case regardless of the “side” it discredits. It would also probably help if we pointed her to our expansive – and objective! - FAQ on the issue.

One day, we swear to finally chime in on the 33 comments to our Hot Coffee review. We need to respond to those comments that cited our jobs as defense lawyers and claimed that we were advocating tort reform via film review. We promise to give each of those the attention it deserves. We especially need to respond to this reader, who writes:

Remember the victim and take your beating like an adult.

We will finally let him know that the writer was a mere 14 years old and was more concerned with the perils of puberty than passing the New Mexico bar exam when the Liebeck verdict was rendered. As such, he takes no credit for the “beating” that occurred in the courtroom in 1994. Unless, the reader was referring to the fraternal order of defense lawyers in which we all share in each others losses. Once we have a moment, we will let him know.

One day.

One day, we will respond. We really will. We appreciate your comments and encourage the continued dialogue. One day, we engage in these debates. Just not today. Back to work.

New Year, New Hot Coffee Case

Twenty one years ago, Stella Liebeck spilled what became the world’s most famous cup of coffee. Two years ago, we here at Abnormal Use started writing about her famed litigation against McDonald’s.  Our FAQ file on the litigation and our commentary on the subsequent Hot Coffee documentary created quite a buzz in the blogosphere. (In fact, those posts are still drawing comments two years later). What about a cup of coffee spilled in New Mexico more than two decades ago is so important that we are still talking about it today?

For starters, history keeps repeating itself.  So we have to keep writing about it, right?

According to a report from The Louisiana Record, a Louisiana woman is suing Burger King over burns she allegedly sustained by a cup of the fast food chain’s coffee. The woman alleges that a Burger King employee handed her the coffee through a drive-thru window. When the cup’s lid dislodged, the coffee spilled and allegedly caused serious burns to her arm, chest, and stomach. The woman claims that Burger King failed to properly secure the lid and served coffee at an extreme scalding temperature. Feel like you have heard this story before?

This case remains in its infant stages, so not much is known about the validity of the woman’s complaints. Nonetheless, we all know how this one likely will play out. Again, hot coffee cases are nothing new. In fact, many hot coffee claims predated Stella Liebeck – the McDonald’s case was just the first of a very few cases to see the inside of a courtroom. Based on this precedent, we doubt Burger King and the Louisiana woman will be heard by a jury of their peers, although we suppose that may depend on when the lid dislodged and if the employee was handing it to her as it did.

We’ll see. What is the meaning of all of these hot coffee claims some 20 years after Stella Liebeck? The plaintiff’s bar would have you believe that the Liebeck verdict was a mandate, now ignored, for restaurants to cease serving an “unreasonably dangerous” product. Others, including the writers here at Abnormal Use, will continue to argue coffee is meant to be served hot and, despite the numerous lawsuits, makers and consumers of coffee share this belief. Despite the threat of litigation, people will continue to demand that their coffee be served hot. The debate will rage on.

Before accusing us of spreading dirty corporate information, let us reiterate that we recognize both sides of the issue. You will not hear us questioning the seriousness of Liebeck’s injuries or the temperature of her coffee. Liebeck and many of the plaintiffs that followed sustained significant injuries caused by hot coffee. We do not question these facts. We simply believe that this is a liability issue. Coffee is meant to be served hot, and plaintiffs want it that way – until it is spilled. The latest coffee case will not be the last. As long as people keep drinking hot coffee, restaurants will continue to serve it that way. And, if people keep drinking liquids, spills will ensue. And lawsuits will happen, apparently.

First Hot Coffee, Now Hot Tequila?

Nearly everyone knows of the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit.  For those of you who have followed the Abnormal Use law blog for a while, you know that we have covered the topic in great depth (a/k/a ad nauseam).  Well, now, there’s a new spin on this old classic.  Hot tequila!  That’s right: An Ohio man is suing a bar for allegedly serving him a shot of tequila that was mixed with extract from one of the spiciest peppers in the world.

Brady Bennett filed suit against Adobe Gila’s at The Greene in Beavercreek, Ohio,  alleging that a bartender negligently served him a shot of tequila with ghost pepper extract.  According to Bennett’s attorney, Bennett and his friend were out for a night on the town when the bartender offered them a round of shots.  Bennett claims the group ordered a manly round of tequila shots with apple flavoring, but Bennett alleges that the bartender gave them the old switch-a-roo with the ghost pepper extract.

Upon taking the shot, Bennett allegedly fell to the ground in pain as his throat swelled shut.  He was taken to the hospital and was ultimately just fine.

So what exactly is ghost pepper extract? Ghost pepper extract is one of the hottest peppers short of weapons grade pepper spray.  Pepper spray comes in between 2 to 5 million on the Scoville scale.  Ghost pepper, which is actually intended for use in foods and not incapacitating criminals, comes in right behind at just under 1 million on the scale.   By comparison, a jalapeno pepper is only around 10,000 Scoville units.

Serving a ghost pepper shot to a patron without a warning would certainly qualify as negligence.  However, the claim seems a little suspect.  It’s not like we are talking about Tabasco sauce.  What bartender would a) have ghost pepper extract handy at the bar and b) think to put it in shot?  Maybe the bartender was Loyd Christmas from Dumb and Dumber.  According to the restaurant’s owner, they don’t even stock ghost pepper extract at their facilities.  He did, however, admit that there may have been hot sauce in the shot.

Apparently, in addition to damages for medical expenses, Bennett also seeks damages for some real intense pain and suffering.  Bennett’s attorney told the Dayton Daily News, “Over the course of the next two weeks, when he has to go to the bathroom, it is an excruciating experience.” Ouch.

 

Tonight: Susan Saladoff Brings “Hot Coffee” to Charlotte, North Carolina

Over the past couple years, we here at Abnormal Use have written a great deal about hot liquid product liability cases.  Just this week, we reported on hot soup in a school cafeteria.  Last week, we told you about the case of the hot tea on an airline flight.  We have even kept you abreast on hot coffee litigation nationwide.  And, of course, the genesis of it all – Plaintiff’s attorney Susan Saladoff’s anti-tort reform documentary, Hot Coffee.

Now, it all comes full circle as Saladoff has come to our backyard.

Tonight, from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. at the EpiCenter Theater in Charlotte, North Carolina, you can attend a screening of Hot Coffee followed by commentary from Susan Saladoff.  The screening is sponsored by the Mecklenburg County Bar Association.  There is no cost to the general public or for attorneys not seeking CLE credit.  For those who would like 2 general hours of CLE credit, the cost is $90.

You may remember Saladoff cancelled an interview with Abnormal Use just prior to the release of Hot Coffee. We wrote at length about her background as a plaintiff’s attorney and her potential bias as a filmmaker covering the infamous Stella Liebeck McDonald’s hot coffee case litigation.  Maybe tonight, we may get the chance to finally meet her and ask her some questions.  We will be sure to report on our experience.