I am excited for this documentary to air. HBO’s “Hot Coffee” is a documentary that looks into some of the most highly ridiculed “frivolous lawsuits”, with the namesake representing the case of Stella Liebeck, the woman who brought a product liability claim after she was severely burned by a cup of McDonald’s coffee which was heated to over 180-190 degrees, and suffered third degree burns to her groin area, including her genitals, which required substantial skin grafting. The coffee you brew at home or buy at Starbucks, by contrast, is probably closer to 130 degrees.
Two of the main points that are never mentioned in that case is that 1) Ms. Liebeck tried to resolve the claim with McDonald’s by asking them to pay for her past and future medical care from the burns, about $20,000, and they refused, offering her $800 instead; and 2) McDonald’s had received approximately 700 reports from customers of serious burns from its coffee in the preceding ten years, and the jury in Ms. Liebeck’s case heard this second point of evidence, along with the evidence from a McDonald’s officer that the company had no intention of taking any measures to prevent further burns.
Another burr in my saddle is that no media outlet ever reports that the alleged “jackpot justice” that Ms. Liebeck received in the form of money damages was reduced by the Court on two occasions, under the Court’s normal (but rarely discussed) ability to reduce verdicts it believes excessive, out of line with the evidence, or in violation of statute.
It’s amazing how pundits that trumpet “tort reform” and “runaway juries” never mention the various modifications of jury verdicts performed from the bench that routinely occur. For example, “non-economic” damages awarded by juries, commonly known as pain and suffering, can be reduced by judges when they believe the figure does not line up with the economic, or actual damages proven in a case. Punitive damages awarded by a jury are frequently reduced by judges applying statutory caps that might apply. Juries also can apportion fault to the plaintiff and reduce their damages award by the percentage they believe the plaintiff to have contributed to her own injury. The latter two of these things happened in the Liebeck case. That doesn’t get any media play, but it’s a fact.
Bottom line: the trial result of the McDonald’s case was nothing like the media would have you believe. The jury determined that Ms. Liebeck’s compensatory damages were $200,000, but reduced that to $160,000 on the basis that she was 20% at fault for her own injuries. This happens in many cases tried to juries.
From of the initial punitive damage award of $2.7 million dollars given by the jury, the Court reduced the amount to $480,000, which was 3x the amount of her actual damages. I don’t know for certain if New Mexico law capped punitives at 3x compensatories, but that type of cap is typical in states. So, while the media tells you this case was “jackpot justice” of nearly $3 million dollars, it wasn’t. They ignore the procedural steps that the Court took after the jury award, and in doing so, make Americans believe that the jury system is broken.
In fact, Ms. Liebeck actually settled the case for an undisclosed amount allegedly under $600,000 after the trial, when the parties each appealed the verdict. What decidedly did not happen was that an elderly woman got “rich” by suing good old McDonald’s. You can google this story and find out the facts for yourself.
One sidenote: how much do you think that McDonald’s spent defending this single lawsuit? I would be willing to bet you my dog that it was more than Ms. Liebeck’s original settlement offer of $20,000. It was probably more than the final jury verdict prior or ultimate settlement amount. Doesn’t it strike you as odd that companies are willing to spend 10 to 20 times the amount of a realistic damages claim rather than just fairly evaluate and pay it?
Here is the link to the “Hot Coffee” documentary website: http://hotcoffeethemovie.com/
This is a sidenote that doesn’t have much to do with my personal practice, but I wanted you to be aware of the sleight of hand that goes on between big businesses, insurance companies, and lazy media to confuse and bias you against people who are injured and make claims.
As usual, there are many more facts to any given story than what makes it to the mainstream media in a boiled down version. Take a look at that link, do some independent research and try to check out the documentary. Give me a call to discuss, disagree, or otherwise.
Have a good weekend!