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July 15, 2011
McDonald's 'hot coffee' case still burns people
Special to the Journal

Can you name the plaintiff in the infamous McDonald's coffee case?

Didn't think so.

For the record, the plaintiff was 79-year-old Stella Liebeck, the drive-through customer who spilled hot coffee between her legs. But despite her relative anonymity, the McDonald's coffee case — once touted as the poster child of excessive lawsuits — continues to be a cause celebre since it achieved notoriety 12 years ago.

But first, let's discuss a case recently decided by the Utah Supreme Court.

While walking in a crosswalk in a grocery store parking lot, John Boyle was hit by a truck. As a result, the Salt Lake City resident suffered a serious back injury that led to surgery, and also lost his job because he couldn't work for months.

Unfortunately, Boyle still suffers from chronic pain that prevents him from sleeping through the night or in a bed, driving for extended periods or working an eight-hour day. Although he now works for a golf shop, he can't lift two buckets of golf balls at the same time or perform other job-related tasks. And once a professional golfer, his golf game has gone downhill.

Boyle later sued the truck driver, Kerry Christensen, for damages in Salt Lake District Court. After Christensen admitted liability, the case went to trial on damages only.

During closing argument, defense counsel referred to the McDonald's coffee case for the very first time, incorrectly representing that plaintiff's counsel in both cases had used a so-called “per diem” analysis for determining damages. (Under this perfectly acceptable approach, the jury is urged to calculate damages for pain and suffering by using a daily dollar amount and then multiplying it by the number of days that the plaintiff was hurt and/or disabled.)

Although Boyle's attorney immediately objected on the ground that the McDonald's coffee case wasn't in evidence and was prejudicial, the trial court overruled his objection. In the short time allowed for his response, Boyle's lawyer couldn't say much to mitigate the impact of opposing counsel's remark.

The jury later returned a verdict for $62,500, which included less than $28,000 for Boyle's pain and suffering. (The balance was for his economic losses.) This paled in comparison to the amount requested by his attorney — $458,724, to be exact — which included $370,000 for his pain and suffering.

In his appeal, Boyle argued, among other things, that the reference to the McDonald's coffee case was irrelevant and improper, and that he deserved a new trial. Although a Utah appeals court disagreed, Boyle convinced the Utah Supreme Court to hear his case.

In a unanimous decision, the justices recently reversed the lower courts and awarded Boyle a new trial.

At the outset, the high court discussed the “cultural context” of the McDonald's coffee case.

What made the headlines and what most people remember, said the court, are the size of the verdict and the source of the injury. With “$2.9 million for spilled coffee” etched in their minds, the McDonald's coffee case has come to symbolize “greedy plaintiffs and lawyers who file frivolous lawsuits and win hugely excessive sums in a broken legal system,” said the court.

The justices acknowledged that this negative perception is “understandable” when limited to a “superficial view of the facts.” But when the details and issues of the McDonald's coffee case are examined more closely, the court continued, one's perspective can be “dramatically alter(ed).”

First of all, the high court observed that the temperature of the spilled coffee was so hot — 180 to 190 degrees — that within seconds Liebeck suffered third-degree burns on her thighs, buttocks and groin. As a consequence, the elderly plaintiff underwent skin grafts during an eight-day hospital stay, was disabled for two years, and left with permanent scarring over 16 percent of her body.

The justices next pointed out how McDonald's had received approximately 700 prior complaints about coffee-burn injuries, including some that were settled for six-digit sums. The fast-food chain never lowered the temperature of its coffee, however, because the number of prior injuries was deemed “statistically insignificant.”

Third, the court emphasized how Liebeck's verdict included $2.7 million in punitive damages. (This amount had “nothing to do with a per diem analysis,” the court explained, which is why the reference to the McDonald's coffee case by Christensen's attorney had been misleading.)

The jury awarded this sum, said the court, because it believed the extreme temperature of the coffee was too dangerous, and that McDonald's had “callously disregarded” this danger in light of the prior injuries. Moreover, the $2.7 million figure matched McDonald's revenue from just two days of coffee sales.

Given the “uniquely iconic nature” of the McDonald's coffee case, the ensuing media frenzy, and the “general misunderstanding of the totality of its facts and reasoning among the public,” the Utah high court said it would be hard to imagine a scenario where defense counsel could properly mention the case to a jury. It instead seems, said the court, that the sole purpose of such reference would be to appeal improperly to the jury's passions.

So were the jury's passions wrongly inflamed in Boyle's case by the improper reference to the McDonald's coffee case?

Hard to say. But after considering various factors, including the small amount of pain and suffering damages awarded by the jury, the justices ultimately said there was a reasonable likelihood that Boyle would've fared better if the infamous coffee case had never been mentioned — and that he was therefore entitled to a new trial.

So are you more of a movie buff than a legal beagle?

If so, perhaps you've already seen “Hot Coffee,” a 78-minute documentary released last month (so far only on HBO) that reveals what really happened in the McDonald's coffee case. For example, did you know Liebeck offered to settle her claim for $20,000 toward her substantial medical expenses but that McDonald's offered only $800?

I don't know if “Hot Coffee” will get two thumbs up from Roger Ebert, but it's definitely a must view if you're at all curious about how and why the McDonald's coffee case attracted so much media attention and who funded the effort.

In short, it looks like the McDonald's coffee case will have an even longer shelf life. Ironically, at the end of the day, it might be best known as the “poster child of corporate greed.”

Andy Bergh wrote his first column for the DJC 19 years ago and has been trying to demystify the law ever since.
He is taking a sabbatical from the column, and wants to thank DJC readers for their support.