Statutory Construction: What is a “Documentary” Film?

As lawyers, we are prickly curmudgeons with respect to definitions, and all of the talk this year about documentary filmmaking prompted much disdain on our part over the use of the term “documentary.”  That word suggests some type of objectivity; Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary uses words like “factual” and “objective” in its definition.  A documentary filmmaker takes his or her camera to the scene of a series of events or profiles a particular person or persons and provides the most objective view of the subject of the film.   A documentary film is successful, we think, when both the subject of the film and those who are critical of the film’s subject matter agree that it is an accurate representation.  Thus, that factual and objective depiction – complete with the proper context – can prompt serious debate and discussion about the events depicted without falling victim to cries of bias, improper editing, or other editorial tricks of the trade.  But that’s not what documentaries do these days.  Just this year, we’ve written about would-be documentaries by Plaintiff’s lawyers advancing a litigious agenda (that being Susan Saladoff’s Hot Coffee) and disgruntled former litigants making films advocating tort reform (that being Brian J. Kelly’s InJustice.). These are filmmakers with agendas; they seek to convince viewers of a point and call them to action.

These are not documentarians; they are editorialists. There is, of course, a place in film for subjective editorializing, just as there is a place in a newspaper for an editorial and op-ed page. Heck, we here at Abnormal Use engage in editorializing every day and would not purport to be objective reporters of fact (unless we tried really, really hard to do so and specifically made that claim).  However, we do not generally bill ourselves as reporters or documentarians, and thus, we free ourselves of the constraints of journalistic objectivity.

We think that Saladoff, the former trial lawyer and producer of Hot Coffee, and Kelly, the former litigant and maker of InJustice – are editorialists.  They admit that they have an agenda, and they concede that they are trying to change people’s minds by showing them things they may not have seen before.  Their films are the work of advocates.  Thus, the term “documentary” is misleading when applied to their films, especially in light of  Saladoff’s representation that she is offering “the truth behind the McDonald’s case.”  Saladoff is a plaintiff’s lawyer with an agenda who has turned film maker; Kelly is a citizen who had an unpleasant encounter with the legal system who has a Washington PR firm with Bush administration alumni promoting his film effort. There’s nothing wrong with their decisions to make films to express their opinions about the American civil justice system; it’s just wrong to call them documentaries.

We suspect there would be similar charges of bias if we here at Abnormal Use produced a documentary on the merits of tort reform – the first complaint we would expect to hear would be that defense lawyers at a large southeastern civil litigation firm were attempting to change the minds of potential jurors.  (Kelly faced similar criticism with InJustice, and in fact, those charges of “bias” were leveled against us when we criticized Saladoff’s film). Similarly, we pointed out the potential bias of Saladoff, whose Facebook page explicitly requests viewers to “take action” and write letters to the editor to advance the film’s mission. (We’ve included in this post a few screencaps from the Hot Coffee official Facebook page indicating how the documentary’s producers are calling for actions by viewers – not something you typically see from an objective reporter of facts).  Take a look:

We suppose there is some point where the public is aware that what is presented as a “documentary” is not, in fact, an objective narrative.  Michael Moore became know for such films as Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, and Fahrenheit 911, all of which were documentaries, in the sense that they were not narrative fiction, although they certainly had an editorial agenda not implied by the use of the term “documentary.”  There’s always a conservative would-be documentary popping up in response to Moore’s films, as well, but again, those too have agendas. Whatever the case, when the public learns of a new Moore film, they are not expecting an objective documentary. But when an unknown filmmaker like Saladoff or Kelly appears on the scene purporting to expose truth, we must be mindful of the term.

Incidentally, and perhaps ironically, we did attempt to make one objective piece of reporting on this very case.  Please direct your browser to our “Stella Liebeck McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case FAQ” for an editorial–free question and answer session about the underlying facts of the infamous hot coffee case, the trial thereof, and the post trial developments.  We thought it might be helpful if there was at least one place on the Internet where there was an objective retelling of that case using only the original documents from the trial and early 1990’s media coverage thereof.  If you want to learn the facts of the case, that is a good place to go.

 

Hot Coffee: The Drink That Keeps On Giving

Over the past year, we here at Abnormal Use have often written on hot coffee litigation lore.  We have provided you with a comprehensive FAQ file on the famous Stella Liebeck McDonald’s hot coffee case.  We have offered our critique of Susan Saladoff’s recent documentary on the subject.  We have even tried to keep you up-to-date on hot coffee cases around the country.  Why?  With each new case, we can present a new twist on the ridiculousness that is the “unreasonably dangerous” beverage.  Enter exhibits #1,234 and #1,235.

Last week, news broke of litigation in New York and California involving spilled coffee.  In California, a man ordered a Big Mac and two coffees at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Huntington Beach California.  He claimed that a McDonald’s employee dumped “scalding” coffee into his lap, causing him to suffer first- and second-degree burns.  In his lawsuit filed in the Orange County Superior Court, the man now alleges that McDonald’s served coffee at “extremely unsafe” temperatures and used defective cup lids.  He is seeking more than $25,000 in damages.  The report was silent as to any further details.

In New York, a 10-year old girl was awarded $600,000 by a special referee for past and future pain and suffering after she too was burned with hot coffee.  The girl was a guest at a Sweet 16 birthday party when she came into contact with the electrical cord of a 40-cup commercial coffee urn.  Her contact with the cord caused the urn to overturn, spilling coffee onto unspecified parts of her body.  As a result, she suffered second- and third-degree burns and was hospitalized for ten days.  Her mother sued Mastrantonio Catering, Inc. in a New York state court.  After Mastrantonio failed to file a timely answer, the plaintiff moved for a default judgment.  The motion was intially denied, but later reversed and granted by a New York appellate court.

What can we learn here?  Hot coffee litigation spans from coast-to-coast.  Some may argue that the continued expansion of hot coffee cases is evidence that the beverage is unreasonably dangerous.  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.  McDonald’s, as well as anyone, is familiar with these lawsuits.  Catering companies certainly recognize the need to serve products suitable to their customers.  Despite the threat of litigation, people will continue to demand that their coffee be served hot.

In the California case, the McDonald’s employee allegedly spilled the coffee onto the plaintiff.  It wasn’t that the coffee itself was unreasonably dangerous and defective; rather, the allegation is that an employee negligently spilled hot coffee onto the customer.  In the New York case, the plaintiff was awarded $600,000 after Mastrantonio went into default.  The plaintiff’s motion for default judgment was granted, not because Mastrantonio failed to present a meritorious defense, but rather, because it failed to demonstrate a justifiable excuse for its default.  Once the issue of liability was decided, the special referee was left to determine the extent of the injuries themselves.  Liability was never at issue.  We have never disputed the extent of hot coffee burns in these cases.  Rather, we fail to understand how a maker of coffee can be held liable for preparing and serving a beverage in its expected form.

These cases have one common theme – coffee is hot and can cause burns when spilled.   Some may find these cases ripe for litigation while others feel they have no place in our courtrooms.  Its all a matter of perspective.  You obviously know our perspective.  If you want to read a well-written counter-proposal from a different perspective, check out this piece from Christopher Pascale at Suite 101.

News from the Hot Coffee Front: McDonald’s Settles Canadian Lawsuit

In recent weeks, no beverage on earth has been more widely discussed, analyzed, and investigated than hot coffee.  Indeed, it has been the subject of a recent HBO documentary and a point of contention on the many legal blogs that elected to review the film.  Just as the the media frenzy had finally begun to subside, hot coffee litigation is once again back in the news. It never seems to end, does it?

The Toronto Sun recently reported that McDonald’s has settled a claim with a Quebec woman after hot coffee spilled onto her leg back in May.  Reportedly, the woman ordered several cups of coffee from a McDonald’s drive-through.  As the attendant handed her the beverages,  the cardboard carrying tray allegedly buckled, spilling three cups of coffee into her car and onto her person.  Following the spill, she was transported by ambulance to an area hospital for second-degree burns.  She demanded $12,313.24, and the fast food company’s insurer honored the request.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and claim this settlement is evidence that McDonald’s serves an unreasonably dangerous product.  There are clearly other factors at play here to explain McDonald’s willingness to expeditiously settle this woman’s claim.  First, there is no real dispute among credible sources that hot coffee can cause burns when spilled onto someone.  Second, after all of the recent bad press, McDonald’s may have an incentive to tidily dispose of such matters. Let’s remember: McDonald’s has taken its share of criticism for refusing to settle medical claims due to hot coffee burns.  Be it right or wrong, McDonald’s needs to temper the potential for any additional bad press.

Finally, this is not your typical Stella Liebeck-style hot coffee case.  The Quebec woman – the potential plaintiff – was not herself the spiller of the coffee.  Not only was the coffee reportedly spilled by a McDonald’s employee, but also, the spilling may have been the result of an apparently dysfunctional carrying tray.  Obviously, the facts are subject to discovery, and there may be a number of unknown factors, but at present, there is no evidence from the Toronto Sun article suggesting the woman played any role in the spill apart from being the victim.  Even if McDonald’s maintained the position, often asserted here at Abnormal Use, that coffee is a beverage meant to be served hot, it still must account for the possible negligence of its own  employee and the reportedly defective tray it chose to carry said beverage.

Nevertheless, this case may be exploited to advance the questionable proposition that hot coffee is, by its nature, unreasonably dangerous and defective.  Let us remember, however, that coffee is meant to be served hot and when it is spilled, it will burn.  That is simply the nature of the product.

Film Review: Brian J. Kelly’s “InJustice” Documentary

Two weeks ago, we here at Abnormal Use offered our review of Plaintiff’s attorney Susan Saladoff‘s anti-tort reform documentary, Hot Coffee, which discussed, in part, the infamous Stella Liebeck McDonald’s hot coffee case.   We were critical of the film, chastising Saladoff for her editorial choices and potential lack of objectivity, particularly in light of her past as a trial lawyer and affiliation with numerous Plaintiff’s lawyers organizations.  Tonight, at 10/9 Central on the ReelzChannel, filmmaker Brian J. Kelly premieres his own documentary and analysis of the courts, InJustice. This project was funded in part by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of Saladoff’s favorite targets in her own film.  Just as we warned you of Saladoff’s possible bias, so too must we advise you that Kelly’s documentary (which excoriates the legal system and the Plaintiff’s bar in particular) may not come from the most objective of sources.  Kelly was kind enough to grant us an interview regarding the film and its agenda.

InJustice purports to offer an in-depth look at the rise and fall of the so-called “kings of torts,” the wealthy and successful Plaintiff’s lawyers like Richard Scruggs, Melvyn Weiss, and William Lerach.  In so doing, Kelly seeks to illustrate the alleged faults of America’s litigation system.  Using interviews with lawyers, InJustice suggests that class-action attorneys have enriched themselves by perpetrating questionable asbestosis, silicosis, tobacco, and securities litigation, while their clients see little, if any, of the spoils.  The film also highlights how these kings of tort made their fortunes outside of the courtroom.  Specifically, the film digs up a quote by Scruggs, who apparently once remarked that the practice of law is a three-legged stool:  legal tactics, political pressure, and public relations.  The men used this hypothetical three-legged stool to perfection, pressuring corporate defendants into settling allegedly baseless claims without ever actually taking the cases to trial.  The men appeared invincible until their questionable tactics backfired on them.  InJustice closes with the story of how each man found himself facing his own judicial woes: judicial bribery (Scruggs), concealing illegal payments to clients (Lerach), and conspiring to improperly pay off plaintiffs (Weiss).

InJustice features interviews with defense lawyers who practiced with Scruggs, Weiss, and Lerach; however, the most compelling interview probably comes from attorney Charles Merkel, Jr., who described Scruggs’ use of the three-legged stool analogy.   Through these interviews, the film aims to demonstrate how well-trained plaintiff’s lawyers can manipulate the system and make millions of dollars without ever seeing the inside of the courtroom.  The story is intriguing and well-told; however, we here at Abnormal Use question whether these so-called kings of tort are a representative sample of the civil litigation system.

Like Hot Coffee before it, InJustice advances an agenda, and Kelly does so well.  Those who watch the documentary will likely be disgusted with the way the kings of tort are portrayed as manipulating the legal system for their own pecuniary gain.  Certainly, the extrajudicial tactics, coupled with the criminal consequences, of the film’s subjects may leave many viewers believing corporations are often the victims in trumped up class action lawsuits.  However, as noted above, InJustice is crippled by one major problem – films funded and promoted by special interests groups can never paint the whole picture or be relied upon as an objective account of a societal problem.

Unlike Saladoff, Kelly is not a lawyer.  Prior to making his new documentary, he made films about such things as the Blue Angels and the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, just like Saladoff, Kelly uses the documentary medium to promote his own opinions about the faults of the legal system. Like Saladoff before him, Kelly acknowledges that there are two sides to every story.  In an interview with Abnormal Use, Kelly insisted that he “tried to look at the other side that’s not typically covered.”  Unlike Hot Coffee, which Kelly believes is “based on opinion,” Kelly told us that with InJustice, he was looking at “right and wrong.”  In a sense, Kelly is correct – InJustice does focus on fully adjudicated cases and leaves much of the speculation up to the viewers themselves.  However, InJustice, like Hot Coffee, is an opinion piece, using stories of a few to draw categorical inferences on the system as a whole. In fact, it was Kelly own bad experience with the legal system that prompted his desire to make the film.  In a recent interview, Kelly told The Blog of Legal Times that he decided to pursue the project, in part, due lawsuit filed against him by a prior tenant.  Kelly prevailed in the suit, but only after amassing $80,000 in expenses defending against the plaintiff’s claims.

Not only does Kelly exhibit a potential bias against the legal system due to that suit, so too does the film’s principal sponsor, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its Institute for Legal Reform.  In our interview , Kelly noted that he initially pitched the film to cable network channels such as the Discovery Channel but received little interest.  A business associate in Washington, DC connected Kelly with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which ultimately invested in the project. Kelly insists that he accepted their support only upon the precondition that he would maintain editorial control.  Says Kelly: “We were able to work out a deal where they knew what we were out to do.  They really had to let us go and trust us to do what we set out to do.”  However, in the screener of the film we saw, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is never specifically acknowledged as a producer or funding source in the film’s credits (although it is promoting the film and noting its support on its websites here and  here). Accordingly, it will be very difficult for InJustice to maintain its sense of independence and credibility, particularly in light of recent criticism by people like Saladoff who contend that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is mounting a secret campaign to influence public opinion on the judicial system. In fact, InJustice may play right into their hands.

Indeed, we here at Abnormal Use were initially contacted about the film by a Washington, DC consulting firm, Hamilton Place Strategies.  On its website, Hamilton Place bills itself as a bipartisan policy and communications firm, an odd entity to be promoting a television documentary film.  The firm’s public policy advisory unit, HPS Insight, was founded by two alumni of the George W. Bush administration.  Further, that firm’s partners include members of President George W. Bush’s staff and advisers to Senator John McCain and Representative Paul Ryan.  If the firm has any members affiliated with the Democratic Party or more liberal groups, it was not readily apparent on the website.

We’re somewhat troubled by the arrival of two documentaries arriving with weeks of each other both attacking the judicial system from different perspectives. If Hot Coffee and InJustice were screened together, many viewers would probably leave the theater believing that the denizens of our judicial system – from the Plaintiffs lawyers suing corporations to the corporate defendants themselves – are corrupt and dominated by parties only out to protect their own self-interests by whatever means necessary. As officers of the court, we’re not sure that’s the best message to send, nor do we believe that the system is beyond repair (or even as disabled as Saladoff and Kelly contend).  Hot Coffee and InJustice both fail in one key aspect – they focus on exceptions rather than rules.  Saladoff’s selective presentation of the cases in Hot Coffee does not mean that tort reform is unnecessary, nor does Kelly’s highlighting of the ill-advised tactics of Scruggs and Weiss offer proof that all trial lawyers are somehow sinister and corrupt.  The cases presented in these two films are sensationalized exceptions, not the judicial norm.  In the end, though, InJustice is an opinion piece no better or worse than Hot Coffee.

Defense Verdict in Jamie Leigh Jones Case

Yesterday, a federal jury in Houston, Texas rejected Plaintiff Jamie Leigh Jones‘ claims against Halliburton subsidiary KBR that she was raped and fraudulently induced into entering into an employment contract with the company.  See Jones, et al, v. Halliburton Co.,  et al, 4:07-cv-02719 (S.D. Tex.). Jones sought damages against the company in the amount of $145 million, claiming that KBR created a hostile sexual work environment at her barracks in Iraq.

The Houston Chronicle reports:

Jurors in a federal courtroom on Friday rejected a former Conroe woman’s claims that she was drugged and raped by several Kellogg Brown & Root firefighters while working for the company in Iraq in 2005.

The jury also rejected Jamie Leigh Jones’ claims that the former Halliburton subsidiary committed fraud by “inducing her to enter into an employment contract.”

By answering “no” to those two questions, the jurors rendered the other 12 questions in the jury charge moot, bringing an end to the month-long trial of Jones’ lawsuit.

We mention this verdict today because the Jones lawsuit was prominently featured in Susan Saladoff’s recent documentary, Hot Coffee, which we reviewed previously here. Specifically, the film chronicled Jones’ inability to have her claims heard by a jury due a mandatory arbitration clause in her employment contract (although we here at Abnormal Use did not explore the Jones case in our review because our interest in the film was prompted primarily by its discussion of the Stella Liebeck McDonald’s hot coffee case).  In 2009, the Fifth Circuit ruled that Jones did have the right to have her case heard by a jury. See Jones v. Halliburton Co., 583 F.3d 228 (2009).

Abnormal Interviews: Ted Frank of the Center for Class Action Fairness

Today, Abnormal Use continues its series, “Abnormal Interviews,” in which this site will conduct interviews with law professors, practitioners, and other commentators in the field. For the latest installment, we turn to the founder of the Center for Class Action Fairness and an Adjunct Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Ted Frank. We have cited Mr. Frank often in connection with our work on the Stella Liebeck McDonald’s hot coffee case. He was kind enough to give us his thoughts on that famous case as well as his other projects. The interview is as follows:

1) What do you think is the most significant recent development in torts and product liability litigation?

It goes beyond tort and product-liability litigation to some extent, but the erosion of the preemption doctrine is of some concern. It’s ironic that, even as we see the federal government assert its authority over local affairs in legislation such as PPACA and cases like United States v. Arizona, we’re simultaneously seeing this administration insist that state court juries should exercise dominion over interstate commerce already fully regulated by the federal government. This seems precisely backwards.

2) The Wall Street Journal has a characterized you as a “leading tort reform advocate.” In your view, why is tort reform needed in our system, generally, and in product liability litigation, specifically?

I view tort reform as a means to an end, rather than an end in and of itself. I consider myself a consumer advocate, and it just so happens that the pendulum of the legal system has swung so far in favor of lawyers that consumers are being hurt, and tort reform is needed to restore balance. If ever the pendulum swings too far the other way, you’ll see me switch sides on these debates. As it is, if anyone asks me, I tell them I oppose collateral source reform, which just punishes individuals with the foresight to purchase insurance.

There are so many places where reform is needed. The judiciary and the bar aren’t doing enough to punish or deter fraudulent cases. We have very sensible rules that courts don’t second guess the good faith decisions of lawyers or prosecutors, or the exercise of business judgment by executives, but those rules are thrown out the window when it comes to second guessing the design decisions of engineers or the judgment calls of physicians, though there is every reason to believe that courts are even less likely to get those questions right, especially in hindsight. And uncapped noneconomic or punitive damages introduces an element of complete randomness into the system. Even when the system is considered to be “working,” the majority of the expense of the system goes to paying the administrative costs of the attorneys rather than to the putative victims: we wouldn’t tolerate that level of overhead in any other sector of the public or private economy. All of these features distort incentives, deter innovation, result in unjust punishment of the innocent, and hurt the economy and consumers in the long run.

3) Recently, we here at Abnormal Use have written several pieces regarding the Stella Liebeck hot coffee case in which we have cited some of the articles you have written on the subject. Why have you taken an interest in that litigation, and why is it important to dispel some of the “urban legends” that have arisen?

For twenty years I’ve had an interest in urban legends (I was friends with the Snopeses before there was a snopes.com), and several of them stem from the legal arena. One of my favorites involves the Baby Ruth bar: it’s a famous trivia answer that the candy bar was named after Grover Cleveland’s daughter, rather than the baseball player Babe Ruth. Snopes and I did some research in the 1990s, and concluded that the “Grover Cleveland’s daughter” story was almost certainly invented for purposes of trademark litigation against Babe Ruth, who had a competing candy bar.

The Stella Liebeck case was exactly the sort of thing that turns into an urban legend, and there are certainly a lot of inaccuracies that crept into the story as it went viral. The Liebeck case got politicized, however: it was an outrageous result and picked up as a poster child for tort reform, and, fascinatingly, the trial lawyer lobby, instead of reasonably saying “Look: the justice system is never going to be 100 percent correct, there have been a dozen hot coffee cases before this one where the courts got it right and threw it out, and you can’t make public policy based on a single anecdote just because the judge made a mistake here” decided to engage in a misinformation campaign to argue that the Liebeck case was both correct and an aspirational result for our tort system – and a disturbing number of law professors joined that cause. If you Google for the case, the vast majority of results are trial-lawyer sites filled with misstatements of the facts and laws. It’s gotten to the point that, in the majority of tort reform debates I participate in, it’s the trial lawyer who is the first to introduce the subject. I’ve been following the case and rebutting the misinformation on both sides since it first made the news, and it just so happens that the majority of misinformation is coming from the plaintiffs’ lawyer side these days. One of these days, I’ll lock myself in a room for a couple of weeks and write a law review article on the subject so there can be a one stop place for truthful information and arguments about the case.

I have a popular talk I give to law schools where I talk about the hot coffee case and a couple of other lawsuits against McDonald’s called “The Law of McDonald’s” and use that as the framework to talk about the two visions of tort law: personal responsibility versus deep pocket compensation of victims, and why I prefer the personal responsibility route.

4) As the founder of the Center for Class Action Fairness, you have sought to protect the interest of consumers in class action settlements. In your opinion, what needs to be done in order to balance the interest of consumers in class action settlements with the need for tort reform?

Assuming that the Supreme Court doesn’t do anything crazy in the Wal-Mart case, the law is, for the most part, in the right place, and it’s just a question of judges exercising their responsibility to apply it correctly – which is hard to do when the settling parties are making an ex parte presentation to the court, and good-faith objectors don’t have the financial incentive to hire a lawyer to make sure the court gets it right. That’s why I do the pro bono representation that I do: someone’s got to do it.

There are certainly some legislative tweaks possible to resolve some ambiguities in the law that class action lawyers have used to benefit themselves at the expense of consumers. I don’t think it’s a tort reform thing; it should be a bipartisan good government thing. Plaintiffs’ lawyers, as a group, should be supporting what I do, because class action lawyers like Milberg and like Kabateck Brown Kellner make them all look bad when they negotiate settlements that don’t do anything for the class but pay the lawyers millions.

BONUS QUESTION: What do you think is the most interesting depiction of products liability and/or class actions in popular culture, and why?

I have a toy figurine of Lionel Hutz on my bookshelf, but his only class action was the consumer fraud case against the makers of the film The Neverending Story. Larry Ribstein’s scholarship on why Hollywood so consistently gets these issues wrong explains why I find this question tough, but I enjoyed the first half of John Grisham’s The King of Torts for its depiction of a corrupt class action settlement that never would have survived Amchem scrutiny. I’m told I should read Gregg Easterbrook’s The Here and Now, which might well supplant Grisham if I ever get around to it. There’s also Michael Clayton, which takes me back to my days as a law-firm associate setting car bombs for adverse witnesses; it amuses me no end in the scene where the lawyer complains that the case had 85,000 documents and 100 motions. The problem with Grisham is that his books repeatedly have a critical plot point where somebody bribes a state court judge to decide a federal removal motion some way, and it just ruins the book for me when the author gets a federal jurisdiction question so wrong. They really should teach 28 USC § 1446 at the Iowa MFA program.

BIOGRAPHY: Ted Frank is an attorney licensed in Illinois, the District of Columbia, and California and a graduate of the the University of Chicago Law School. He served as the first director of the American Enterprise Institute Legal Center for the Public Interest and was an attorney for the McCain-Palin 2008 campaign. He is currently an Adjunct Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and runs the Center for Class Action Fairness, which he founded in 2009. He is a contributor to fellow legal blogs PointOfLaw and Overlawyered. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Hot Coffee: Take Two (In Florida)

We here at Abnormal Use garnered a bit of buzz with our recent comments on Susan Saladoff’s Hot Coffee documentary and the Stella Liebeck litigation. Some of our critics have interpreted our remarks as an attempt to re-litigate that infamous McDonald’s case. Those critics scolded us and purported that “it’s over.” They advised us to simply “move on” and write on other topics. Perhaps those critics were right. Certainly, the details of a 1994 lawsuit must be irrelevant in today’s legal landscape. However, someone forgot to tell Florida’s Cynthia Gamrot.
According to the local ABC news affiliate, Ms. Gamrot recently ordered a cup of coffee at a Chick-Fil-A drive-thru in St. Petersburg, Florida. She allegedly spilled coffee in her lap and sustained second- and third-degree burns after the cup’s lid “popped off.” The coffee was served at a temperature somewhere between 170 and 200 degrees which was reportedly in accordance with Chick-Fil-A corporate policy. As a result, she sued the owner of the St. Petersburg Chick-Fil-A. (The report did not specify the jurisdiction in which the case was filed). Sound familiar?
In response to Ms. Gamrot’s lawsuit, Tampa’s ABC Action News tested the serving temperature of 33 cups of coffee from 10 national restaurant chains – a task reminiscent of law clerk Danny Jarrett’s work in the Liebeck case. The station’s study indicated that the majority of the coffee was served between 150 and 180 degrees. It should be noted, however, that the coffee served in the 150-degree temperature range came primarily from Arby’s and Wendy’s – two restaurants that do not serve breakfast and are not historically known for their coffee. Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Krispy Kreme, and McDonalds all tested in the 168 to 180 degree range.
Back in 1994, Plaintiff’s expert Dr. Charles Baxter opined during the Liebeck trial that the optimal temperature to serve coffee was between 155 and 160 degrees. Defense expert Dr. Turner Osler indicated that coffee served at a temperature as low as 130 degrees could result in burns similar to those sustained by Ms. Liebeck. Further, Reed Morgan, Ms. Liebeck’s counsel, theorized that any coffee served over 140 degrees was “unreasonably dangerous.” If this testimony from the Liebeck trial is true, why do top fast food chains continue to serve an allegedly “dangerous product?” Either restaurants have a diabolical agenda to harm their patrons or they have recognized that people enjoy their coffee piping hot.
The ABC affiliate’s study demonstrates that the Liebeck case did little, if anything, to alter the manner in which fast food restaurants serve coffee. Further, it reveals that the conduct of McDonald’s in the early 1990s conformed to industry standards – both then and now. Critics of the restaurant chain – and those who attempt to use the Liebeck case to advance the agenda of the Plaintiffs’ bar – simply fail to acknowledge the fact that coffee, by its very nature, is meant to be served hot. No one wants to consume a lukewarm cup of sub-140 degree coffee. Restaurants recognize this fact, as do consumers of coffee. Why can’t the trial bar? If Mr. Morgan honestly believes that any coffee served at a temperature greater than 140 degrees is “unreasonably dangerous,” then he essentially argues that coffee should be taken off of restaurant menus. Starbucks did not become a morning staple because of its iced coffee selections.
In no way are we here at Abnormal Use intending to trivialize the injuries of coffee burn victims.
No one is disputing the severity of Ms. Liebeck or Ms. Gamrot’s burns. We do, however, question the need for attributing liability for those burns to the producer or seller of the coffee. There is no evidence that either Ms. Liebeck or Ms. Gamrot expressed any concerns with their fast food-produced coffee prior to their accidents. In fact, we imagine they probably enjoyed the hot product, which is why they ordered it in the first place. They might have even complained had they been served coffee cooler than the industry standard temperature. Simply put, hot coffee does not become “unreasonably dangerous” until it is negligently spilled by the consumer.

An Open Letter to "Joe Consumer" of The Pop Tort blog

Dear Mr. Joe Consumer,

As relatively new legal bloggers, we can attest that few things bring as much gratification as the acknowledgment that our work is being read by our distinguished colleagues. Imagine our excitement here at Abnormal Use upon learning that you, a contributor to The Pop Tort legal blog, not only read last week’s Hot Coffee post, but took time away from your fight against dirty corporate disinformation campaigns to write your own retort. As you may know, we were pleased to present some basic background facts regarding the new Hot Coffee documentary and the ties of its producer Susan Saladoff to the Plaintiffs’ bar. We’re elated to engage in further dialogue about the film and the issues it presents with you, a writer at blog we’ve read for years. We think that additional discussion on the film, and the infamous Stella Liebeck McDonald’s hot coffee litigation, is truly a boon to public discourse. So, today, we write this thank you note.

Thank you, Mr. Consumer. We owe you much, for your reply provided us with an opportunity to engage in a bit of soul searching and introspection. In the circles in which you travel, you may have heard the vicious rumors that we defense attorneys are soulless, but this is simply not true.

So, thank you for pointing out our corporate bias. We suspect that The Pop Tort, a project of the Center for Justice and Democracy, would never attempt to inject its own ideological agenda into its film commentary – especially a film in which its founder and executive director appeared.

Thank you also for alerting the blogosphere that we have not yet seen the Hot Coffee documentary. We agree that the plainly evident disclaimer of that fact we placed in our original piece may not have been apparent to readers. Despite the fact that we made no representations that we saw the film, it is easy to see how our readers would think we were presenting an actual review of the documentary and not a commentary on the filmmaking team’s potential agenda.

Thank you also for citing to actual Hot Coffee reviews from more “responsible” film critics. Fortunately, you located non-lawyer reviewers untainted by a legal education and the perils of the legal profession. By mentioning only the fact that the filmmaker is an attorney (and omitting any reference to her long career suing large corporations), these reviewers offered truly objective reviews based on the facts as told by Saladoff without referencing other pesky info and context.

Thank you also for halting our “dirty corporate disinformation.” Shame on us for presenting the information in our accompanying FAQ file taken directly from such unreliable sources as pleadings, deposition transcripts, and contemporary news accounts of the case. Shame on us for giving anyone the impression that coffee is best served at McDonald’s temperatures. Shame on us for becoming so caught up in the facts that we neglected to see your truth. After all, as the old writer once said, “[f]acts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other.”

Thank you for putting a stop to our attempt to relitigate the original Stella Liebeck lawsuit. Apparently, we momentarily forgot the well-established principle that once a court or jury renders its decision, all criticism must end. We momentarily forgot that no one wants to hear the losers “whining” about how the case should have been decided. Certainly, our friends at The Pop Tort would never commit such a horrible offense. The winners win the day, and they must be protected from those looking to revise history. Please forgive us this transgression.

Most of all, in light of our errors in judgment, we appreciate that you did not mention our blog’s name or our writer Nick Farr’s name in your post. We would hate for our reputations to be further sullied by last week’s abomination. If only the etiquette of the blogosphere would allow us to remove our original post from the Internet permanently! We remain crestfallen.

Finally, Mr. “Joe Consumer,” we must commend you on your own staid personal transparency and straight-forward, no-nonsense approach to legal commentary. You are an example to us all.

Sincerely,

Abnormal Use

Friday Links

  • Depicted above is the cover of Green Lantern #11, published way, way back in 1962. It features a story entitled “The Strange Trial of Green Lantern,” which is an odd affair indeed. It’s nice to know that the High Court of the Green Lanterns of the Universe doesn’t just find criminal defendants to be not guilty of the charges at issue; they go so far as to pronounce the defendant innocent of the charges. However, we think that Earth’s Green Lantern, the apparent defendant in this case, should have just pleaded guilty in the first place if his response to the acquittal is “I’m Guilty! You must strip me of my super-powers!” Extraterrestrial judicial economy is not served by forcing an alien tribunal to go through a trial if you’re just going to plead guilty at the end of the process, anyway.

  • We’ve arrived! We here at Abnormal Use must be doing something right if a Plaintiff’s friendly blog like The Pop Tort sees fit to bash our commentary of “Hot Coffee,” the documentary by Plaintiff’s lawyer Susan Saladoff which profiles the famous Stella Liebeck case and advocates civil justice reform to make it easier for Plaintiffs to recover. The Pop Tort‘s philippic, written under the pseudonym “Joe Consumer,” calls our writer Nick Farr’s story a “sorry attempt to slam” the film and part of “a dirty corporate disinformation campaign” all concocted by a “corporate lawyer” attempting to relitigate the famed case. Wow! Nick is planning his own retort to set the record straight which we will publish next week. In the meantime, we thank the mysterious “Joe Consumer” for also linking our “comprehensive” FAQ on the Liebeck case, published here the day after our film comment.
  • This is not a copyright and trademark blog, but we can’t resist sharing WordSpy‘s definition of the term “copyfighter,” which is defined as “[a] person who opposes copyright laws and practices that he or she perceives to be unfair.” If you’re not familiar with the site, WordSpy is dedicated to defining newly coined words and clever turns of phrase in the media.
  • In this video, we learn that Darth Vader is quite adept at contract modification. We pray he doesn’t alter the deal again. (Hat tip: ContractsProf Blog).
  • We congratulate the Honorable Henry F. Floyd of the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina for his appointment by President Obama to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. See the news coverage of the appointment here.

The Stella Liebeck McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case FAQ

First entering the public consciousness in 1994, the Stella Liebeck trial, known as the McDonald’s hot coffee case, has become such a fixture of litigation lore that many are unaware of the basic facts of the case, or even where and when it was tried. Litigated and reported upon before the rise of the Internet, much of what appears online about the case is the worst sort of unsourced speculation and conjecture. Our friends at Overlawyered have done an excellent job over the years dispelling the various myths about the case, including those that have arisen suggesting that the industry standard was to serve coffee at temperatures lower than that of McDonald’s. In an effort to publish some of the basic facts of the case, we here at Abnormal Use have created the following FAQ file regarding the matter. In so doing, we have relied solely upon the original pleadings and motions in the case and some contemporary news coverage.

On February 27, 1992, seventy-nine year old department store clerk Stella Liebeck was in the passenger seat of her grandson’s Ford Probe when she ordered a 49 cent cup of coffee at the drive through of a McDonald’s franchise in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Shortly thereafter, she spilled the coffee into her lap and sustained a series of burns. Her original state court lawsuit was filed in March of 1993, tried in August of 1994, and ultimately settled for an undisclosed sum in late 1994. Media coverage of the jury’s original verdict was, shall we say, immense.

Where was the case filed and tried?

The Second Judicial District Court
in Bernalillo County, New Mexico.

What did the complaint allege?

Filed on October 5, 1993 the Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint recited the following allegations:

A. The coffee purchased by her on 2/27/92 was unreasonably dangerous because it was excessively hot and Defendants are liable to her for the physical and mental harm which it caused at the time of its sale and consumption on 2/27/92.

B. The product in question, coffee, was and is routinely sold and manufactured by the Defendants, and it reached Plaintiff in the same condition as it was at the time of the sale; further, Plaintiff in no way is guilty of any fault and the Defendants are strictly liable to Plaintiff under the Restatement of Torts Second, §402(a);

C. The coffee was defectively manufactured, served in a container that had design defects, and the coffee itself was manufactured defectively due to excessive heat; further, the container that it was sold in had no warnings, or had a lack of warnings, rendering the product defectively marketed;

D. The producing cause of Stella Liebeck’s injuries was the exclusive fault of the Defendants;

E. At all material times Defendants were aware of the dangerous condition of the coffee inherent in serving it at the temperature at which it was sold; they knew of the likely consequences of such acts; they knew of the risks involved and acted with a conscious indifference and willful and wanton disregard for the safety of Stella Liebeck and any other consumer of the product;

F. Defendants are expert manufacturers, distributors, and sellers of coffee and had a duty to test and inspect the product for unreasonably dangerous conditions, which they either failed to do, or alternatively, which they did negligently, or in the alternative, did with malice with complete disregard for the dangers inherent in selling coffee at the temperature at which it was sold causing a high probability of severe burns in connection with the sale of the product.

What damages were alleged in the amended complaint?

As set forth in the Amended Complaint, the damages purportedly sustained and sought were:

VI.

As a result of spillage of the defective coffee, Plaintiff sustained burns on her perineum, upper inner thighs, buttocks, genital areas, and lower abdominal wall including the left groin. The burns consisted of both second and third degree burns and were of such severity as to require debridement and skin grafting, causing enormous conscious pain and suffering, mental anguish, and loss of life’s enjoyment, for which she seeks damages. The foregoing treatment caused Plaintiff to incur medical expenses in the past, at the present, and into the reasonable future as follows: (a) past medical expenses: approximately $10,500.00; (b) future medical expenses: approximately $2,500.00. Total: $12,500.00.

VII.

Plaintiff Stella Liebeck was born on XX/XX/12 and was 79 years old at the time of the injury. At the time in question Plaintiff was a healthy, robust, and gainfully employed person, who worked as a sales clerk and earned in excess of $5,000.00 per year; Stella Liebeck has incurred lost earnings of approximately $5,000.00.

IX.

Further, as a direct result of the fault, or in the alternative, the negligence of the Defendants, Plaintiff has sustained severe disfigurement and permanent scarring to her body, which she claims has damaged her in an amount of not less than $100,000.

X.

As a result of the severe and painful burns described herein, Plaintiff sues the Defendants in the amount of $125,000 for physical pain, mental pain and anguish, and loss of life’s enjoyment during the pendency of treatment including skin grafting, debridement, and general recovery from painful scarring, as well as pain and discomfort associated with drawn and tight skin in the scarred areas, which pain and discomfort persists at the present and will persist into the future.

XI.

Plaintiff comes now and sues McDonald’s Corporation and McDonald’s Restaurants P.T.S., Inc. for gross negligence, for willful and wanton disregrad of the rights, safety, and welfare of Stella Liebeck and any other consumers that purchase coffee in the defective state in which it is sold by Defendants, and for the marketing defect of no warning, or in the alternative, insufficient warning, because McDonald’s Corporation and McDonald’s Restaurants P.T.S., Inc. fully know of and are aware of innumerable burn cases caused by the fault, or in the alternative, negligence of their operations in the manufacture, sale, and marketing of extremely hot coffee. For this, Plaintiff comes now and sues in the amount of three times compensatory damages for punitive damages.

What were McDonald’s defenses?

In its Answer to the Amended Complaint, filed on September 22, 1993, McDonald’s asserted the following affirmative defenses:

SECOND DEFENSE

If the Plaintiff was injured and damaged as alleged, then her injuries and damages were the result of her own negligence or of the negligence of a third person or party for whom this Defendant may not be held responsible.

THIRD DEFENSE

If the Plaintiff was injured and damaged as alleged, which is specifically denied, then her injuries or damages were the result of an accident or inadvertence which was not the fault or responsibility of this Defendant.

FOURTH DEFENSE

Plaintiff has failed to mitigate her damages.

FIFTH DEFENSE

Plaintiff should be required to make a prima facie showing of entitlement to punitive damages before any evidence hearing thereupon is adduced before a jury.

SIXTH DEFENSE

Plaintiff’s claims for excessively hot coffee fail to state a claim for which this Court might grant relief.

SEVENTH DEFENSE

At all material times, these Defendants adhered to the applicable standard of care and engaged in reasonable conduct.

Who was sued?

In the original complaint, which was filed on March 21, 1993, Plaintiff only sued P.T.S., Inc., a New Mexico corporation and the local franchise operator. In the amended complaint, however, the McDonald’s corporation was added as a defendant. Ultimately, P.T.S., Inc. was dismissed as a defendant prior to the matter being submitted to the jury.

Where was the McDonald’s franchise in question?

The franchise was located at 5001 Gibson Blvd., S.E., Albuquerque, New Mexico 87108. According to Google Maps, there’s still a McDonald’s franchise at that location: ‎


View Larger Map

Is there a reported opinion?

Yes. The trial court’s original order entering the jury verdict is available on Westlaw as Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, P.T.S., Inc., No. CV-93-02419, 1995 WL 360309, (In the Second Judicial District Court of New Mexico, Bernalillo County, August 14, 1994). However, there is no reported appellate opinion due to a confidential settlement several months after the verdict.

Who was the judge?

The Honorable Robert Hayes Scott was the state court district judge who presided over the case. He is now a United States Magistrate Judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He was initially appointed to the position in 2003.

Who were the Plaintiff’s attorneys?

The lead Plaintiff’s attorney was S. Reed Morgan of S. Reed Morgan & Associates (now of the Law Offices of S. Reed Morgan, P.C.) of Comfort, Texas. Serving as counsel with him were Jerry R. McKenney of Houston, Texas (who at the time of the filing of the original complaint, had been licensed just two years) and local counsel Kenneth R. Wagner of Kenneth R. Wagner & Associates, P.A. (now of Wagner Ford Law, P.A.) in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Who were the defense attorneys?

Bruce Hall, Tracy McGee, Susan S. Throckmorton, and Charles K. Purcell, all of the Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin, & Robb, P.A. firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Now the managing partner of the Albuquerque office of Jackson Lewis, Danny W. Jarrett was then a law clerk at the Rodey firm who executed a summary judgment affidavit setting forth coffee temperature measurements he took at six local restaurants as a part of the defense case.

What were some of the pretrial motions filed in the case?

On January 21, 1994, the defendants moved for summary judgment. The motion was denied. On July 29, 1994, a hearing was conducted on Plaintiff’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. The parties stipulated as to causation of the injuries – that the burns were caused by the coffee. On July 29, 1994, in a letter decision, Judge Scott denied Plaintiff’s motion as to liability.

What was the basis of the McDonald’s motion for summary judgment?

In support of its motion for summary judgment, McDonald’s alleged the following as “undisputed material facts” upon which it based its motion:

1. Plaintiff Stella Liebeck was a passenger in a vehicle which proceeded through the drive-through window of a McDonald’s Restaurant (franchisee P.T.S., Inc.) located at 5001 Gibson, S.E., in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on or about February 27, 1992. Complaint for Damages, Paragraph III.

2. At the time in question, Plaintiff was 79 years old. Complaint for Damages, Paragraph VI.

3. Subsequent to purchasing the coffee, Plaintiff spilled it on herself, sustaining second and third degree burns to her upper inner thighs, buttocks, and other areas of her body. Complaint for Damages, Paragraph VI.

4. Plaintiff has alleged that the coffee was “excessively hot” and “defective” because of its high temperature. Plaintiff’s Complaint, Paragraph IV.

5. The second and third degree burns which Ms. Liebeck sustained could have been sustained at temperatures as low as 130 Fahrenheit. Aff. of Turner M. Osler, M.D., Para. 17.

6. The fact that the coffee that Ms. Liebeck spilled on herself may have been slightly or even significantly hotter than 130° Fahrenheit does not mean that her injuries were worse or more extended than they would have been otherwise. Aff. of Turner M. Osler, M.D., Para. 18.

7. Ms. Liebeck’s age may have caused her injuries to have been worse than they might have been in a younger individual, as the skin of an older person is thinner and heals less easily than the skin of a younger individual; however, even a young adult could have sustained third degree burns after spilling liquid at a temperature of as low as 130° on herself. Aff. of Turner M. Osler, M.D., Para. 19.

8. Unless Ms. Liebeck removed all of her clothing immediately, the clothing may have served to hold in the heat of the spilled liquid, and this may have aggravated the nature and extent of her injury; however, to a reasonable degree of medical probability, she would nevertheless have sustained third degree burns as a result of the coffee spilled. Aff. of Turner M. Osler, M.D., Para. 20.

9. A survey of six (6) fast food or restaurant establishments and two (2) private residences was conducted in September 1993 by Danny Jarrett. Aff. of Danny Jarrett, passim.

10. As part of this survey, Mr. Jarrett used a standard food thermometer and measured the temperature of coffee brewed and maintained at these locations. Aff. of Danny Jarrett, Paras. 3 & 4.

11. Mr. Jarrett’s measurements of coffee were taken when it was first served to him, after approximately 15 minutes, and after approximately 30 minutes. Aff. of Danny Jarrett, passim.

12. The coffee was served to Mr. Jarrett in containers ranging from styrofoam cups to ceramic mugs. Aff. of Danny Jarrett, passim.

13. At no location did Mr. Jarrett record the temperature of freshly served coffee below 130°. Aff. of Danny Jarrett, passim.

After citing several cases in support of its position, McDonald’s argued:

Defendants contend that Ms. Liebeck’s burns were not the result of serving excessively hot coffee, as other restaurants in this community have been demonstrated to serve coffee at temperatures which, for the sake of argument, might be lower than those served at the McDonald’s in question, but which also were high enough temperatures to have still caused the type of injuries and burns that Ms. Liebeck sustained.

It is unclear from the materials currently available whether McDonald’s submitted a memorandum in support of its motion.

What was the Plaintiff’s argument in her summary judgment motion?

In her motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff, after relying upon McDonald’s responses to requests for admission and the deposition testimony of McDonald’s Quality Assurance Group Manager of Administration Christopher D. Appleton, argued:

Plaintiff contends that Defendants have admitted, either through testimony or requests for admission, all elements of products liability and breach of warranty sufficient to prove her case on liability and causation. Moreover, the lack of an adequate warning makes the product defective. The lack of an adequate warning has been admitted by the Defendants. Therefore the product was defective. The defective product caused the burns to Ms. Liebeck’s body. There are no material issues of fact remaining for decision on Plaintiff’s claims of product defect with injuries caused thereby.

Similarly, the Defendants have admitted that the product, when sold, was not fit for its intended purpose, consumption. Accordingly, there no longer exists any material question of fact on the question of whether Defendants breached the implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose; Defendants themselves have admitted the breach.

(Record citations omitted).

When did the case go to trial?

August 8-12 and 15-17, 1994.

Who were the testifying experts?

The defense experts were as follows:

Christopher Appleton (McDonald’s Manager of Quality Assurance). Viewed as an ineffective witness, Mr. Appleton apparently admitted that he was aware of the risk of hot coffee and had no plans to reduce the temperature. (Gerlin, Andrea. “A Matter of Degree,” The Wall Street Journal, September 1, 1994). Further, Mr. Appleton stated that the number of reported burns from McDonald’s coffee in relation to the total number of cups sold was not high enough to justify the modification of the serving temperature.

Dr. P. Robert Knaff (human factors engineer). Dr. Knaff testified that the number of prior coffee burn victims was statistically trivial in comparison to the number of cups sold.

Dr. Turner M. Osler (medical expert). Dr. Osler submitted an affidavit, stating that in his opinion, Ms. Liebeck would have suffered the same extent of burns had she been served coffee at a temperature as low as 130 degrees.

The Plaintiff’s experts were as follows:

Dr. David Arredondo (Mrs. Liebeck’s treating physician). Dr. Arredondo testified as to the extent of Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries. Mrs. Liebeck suffered burns to approximately six percent of her body – 90 percent of which were third-degree burns. Further, he testified that elderly people are more susceptible to burns than younger people due to the thinning of the skin that occurs with age.

Dr. Charles Baxter (burn specialist). Dr. Baxter offered his opinion at trial that coffee served at 180 degrees was excessive and could not be consumed at that temperature. Dr. Baxter opined that the optimal temperature range to serve coffee was between 155 and 160 degrees. (Historical footnote: He operated on President Kennedy and Governor Connally on November 22, 1963).

Dr. Kenneth Diller (thermodynamicist). At his deposition, Dr. Diller testified that, in his opinion, McDonald’s was serving an unreasonably dangerous product when it sold its consumers hot coffee in styrofoam cups without warning of the possibility of sustaining burns.

Dr. Lila F. Laux (psychologist). Dr. Laux testified that the addition of a warning to the McDonald’s coffee would have influenced Mrs. Liebeck’s behavior.

Melissa Patterson (economist). In calculating hedonic damages of $660,900 from the date of Mrs. Liebeck’s injury, Ms. Patterson assumed that Ms. Liebeck lost all enjoyment of life the moment she was burned and would continue to have no enjoyment until her death.

What was the original verdict?

The jury found for the Plaintiff on her claims of product defect, breach of implied warranty, and breach of the implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose. The jury also found that Plaintiff was twenty percent at fault.

What were the damages awarded?

After deliberating four hours, the six man, six woman jury initially awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages, which was reduced by the judge by $40,000 due to the finding of comparative fault. The jury also awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages.

What became of the verdict?

McDonald’s filed post-trial motions. In late August or early September 1994, Judge Scott appointed retired New Mexico Supreme Court Justice William F. Riordan to mediate the dispute and ordered the parties to “make a good faith effort to resolve and completely settle all pending issues.” (“Conference Ordered on Spilled Coffee,” Associated Press, Tulsa World, September 2, 1994, available at 1994 WLNR 5089128). On September 16, 1994, Judge Scott denied McDonald’s motion for new trial and motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, noting that “the compensatory award of $160,000 shall not be disturbed.” However, in that same order, the court noted as follows: “The award of punitive damages of 2.7 million dollars was excessive, as a matter of law. Accordingly, a new trial shall be granted on all issues unless Plaintiff accepts — by written notice to the Court within 25 days of the date of entry of this Order – a remittitur of the punitive damages award as hereby directed by the Court. The remittitur, if accepted, shall reduce the punitive damages award to $480,000, which represents the trebling of the $160,000 award of compensatory damages.” In so doing, Judge Scott commented that the new punitive amount was justified due to “‘willful, wanton, reckless and what the court finds was callous” conduct on the part of McDonald’s. (Associated Press, “Ruling Eases Heat on McDonald’s; Restaurant Will Still Appeal Coffee Verdict,” Wichita Eagle, September 15, 1994, available at 1994 WLNR 823624). At that time, McDonald’s spokesperson Ann Connolly told the Nations’ Restaurant News that “[s]afety is always our first concern, and that is why we have ‘hot contents’ printed as a reminder on our cups. We knew the initial damages awarded were excessive and unjustified, and yesterday the judge acknowledged that and agreed. But we feel they are still excessive, and we will appeal this decision.” “(Judge slashes McD settlement to $480,000: slams chain as ‘callous’ but reduces $2.9M jury decision,” Nation’s Restaurant News, September 26, 1994, available at 1994 WLNR 5313844). In early October of 1994, the New Mexico Supreme Court denied Liebeck’s appeal of the reduction of the punitive award. At that time, McKenney was quoted as saying that “[a] decision has to be made whether to seek a new trial or accept the reduced amount.” (“Court Refuses to Raise Award for Coffee Spill,” The Chicago Tribune, October 14, 1994, available at 1994 WLNR 4335536). On November 3, 1994, Judge Scott denied Plaintiff’s October 21, 1994 motion for reconsideration of the remittitur order. Finally, on November 28, 1994, the court vacated the judgment, presumably due to the confidential settlement which was announced in the media the following week.

What efforts were made to settle the matter?

Liebeck initially approached McDonald’s with a demand of $20,000 to cover her medical bills, future medical expenses, and lost income. McDonald’s countered with an offer of $800. (Gerlin, Andrea. “A Matter of Degree,” The Wall Street Journal, September 1, 1994). As trial approached, Liebeck’s settlement demand increased to approximately $300,000. (Id.). After denying McDonald’s motion for summary judgment, the trial judge ordered the parties to attend mediation. During the session, the mediator recommended that McDonald’s accept a $225,000 offer. (Id.). McDonald’s declined. Following the jury verdict and the trial court’s reduction of the punitive damages award, both parties appealed. Before the case was heard on appeal, the parties settled out-of-court for an undisclosed sum. When the settlement was announced, Wagner claimed that “McDonald’s now (is putting) warnings on its coffees as have some of the other fast food chains. That was her principal objective, to make things safe. Have you ever had McDonald’s coffee? It’s hot, hot hot. It’s as hot as the water in your radiator.” (“McDonald’s settles suit over burns from coffee,” The Houston Chronicle, December 2, 1994, available at 1994 WLNR 5009816).

What was the immediate reaction to the verdict?

The public immediately reacted to the size of the verdict; the consensus was that it was excessive in light of the perceived contributory negligence of the Plaintiff. The media reaction sent the Plaintiff’s bar into damage control mode. On October 24, 1994, The National Law Journal published a letter to the editor from Morgan, who noted as follows:

There has been a great uproar from people displeased at the size of the verdict, who see it as an example of the product of a runaway jury and a plaintiff who will not accept responsibility for her actions.

McDonald’s Corp. sold its coffee at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit by corporate specification. McDonald’s coffee, if spilled, could cause full-thickness burns (third degree to the muscle/fatty tissue layer) in two to seven seconds.

McDonald’s knew about this unacceptable risk for more than 10 years; it was brought to the company’s attention by other lawsuits (more than 700 reported claims from 1982 to 1992). The company’s witnesses testified that it did not intend to turn down the heat. McDonald’s generates revenues in excess of $1.3 million daily from the sale of coffee alone.

Ms. Liebeck’s treating physician testified that this was one of the worst scald burns he had ever seen. Other expert witnesses termed the risk of harm from McDonald’s coffee to be unacceptable.

Most consumers don’t know that coffee this hot causes such injuries. Nor do they know McDonald’s made a practice of serving its coffee this hot.

The jury applied the law of punitive damages to deter McDonald’s and other similarly situated corporations from exposing consumers to this risk. It imposed a penalty of two days’ revenue from coffee sales, or $2.7 million, for willfully ignoring the safety of customers who feed the McDonald’s money tree. The system has numerous methods of overturning a verdict that is excessive.

Why should we tolerate corporate irresponsibility? What’s wrong with penalizing irresponsible behavior that injures consumers?

The news media, the day after the verdict, established that coffee at the McDonald’s in Albuquerque is now sold at 158 degrees. At that temperature, it would take about 60 seconds to cause third-degree burns. Mission accomplished.

(Morgan, Reed. “Verdict Against McDonald’s Is Fully Justified,” The National Law Journal, October 24, 1994, available at 10/24/94 Nat’l L.J. A20).

Morgan had similar letters published in both The Legal Times and the Texas Lawyer. (Reed Morgan, Reed. “McDonald’s Burned Itself,” The Legal Times, September 19, 1994, available at 1994 WLNR 5431838 and Morgan, Reed, “McDonald’s Burned Itself; What’s Wrong With Penalizing Corporate Irresponsibility That Burns And May Kill Our Consumers?,” Texas Lawyer, September 12, 1994, available at 1994 WLNR 5430539).

What was the substance of the McDonald’s post-trial arguments?

In its memorandum in support of its post trial motions, filed on August 29, 1994, McDonald’s argued as follows:

There can be no doubt that potable coffee is, by its very nature, hot. The evidence in this case establishes that there is nothing unique about McDonald’s coffee in this regard: although billions of cups of coffee are consumed without incident every year, all restaurateurs serve coffee at temperatures high enough to cause third-degree burns under certain conditions. Indeed, the courts of New Mexico have cited coffee spillage (not service) as a classic example of a negligent act, presumably because this sort of accident so often has consequences serious enough to merit the law’s attention. The scalding potential of coffee is so well understood that the courts almost take it for granted.

(citations omitted; emphasis in original).

The Wall Street Journal quoted one McDonald’s state court motion as saying: “First-person accounts by sundry women whose nether regions have been scorched by McDonald’s coffee might well be worthy of Oprah. But they have no place in a court of law.” (Gerlin, Andrea. “A Matter of Degree,” The Wall Street Journal, September 1, 1994).

What became of Stella Liebeck?

Born in December of 1912, she died on August 5, 2004 at age 91.

How has popular culture referenced the case?

One of the most famous pop culture parodies of the case is the episode of “Seinfeld” in which Kramer (Michael Richards), burned by a cup of hot coffee, hired flamboyant Plaintiff’s attorney Jackie Chiles (Phil Morris). Plaintiff’s attorney Susan Saladoff recently released Hot Coffee, a documentary on the case and an analysis of the civil justice system, about which we wrote here.

[This FAQ was researched and prepared by Jim Dedman and Nick Farr.]