Several years ago, many of us, including a good number of Phoenix personal injury lawyers, read with shock about a woman who poured coffee on herself and collected millions. Some people were outraged and, for many of those, even an understanding of the facts would make little difference. They have made up their mind that we are a litigious society and plaintiff’s injury lawyers are lurking around every dark corner waiting to take advantage of someone involved in some sort of a mishap, whether they were injured were not.
That is a subject for a different day. For now, I want to offer my thoughts on what many perceive to be a frivolous jury system that hands out money freely and willingly without considering the merits of a case. In the coffee case, styled Liebeck v. McDonalds, Ms. Liebeck and her grandson, Chris, went through the drive-through at a local McDonald’s and ordered, among other things, a cup of coffee for herself. She received her coffee along with creamer and sweetener. As McDonald’s could reasonably foresee, Ms. Liebeck braced the cup of coffee with her legs and proceeded to remove the lid to add the cream and sweetener. As she removed the lid, coffee spilled and caused second- and third-degree burns across her buttocks, thighs, and labia. Over $20,000 in medical bills later, Ms. Liebeck was left with significant scarring and disfigurement. She asked McDonald’s to cover her medical bills and nothing more. When McDonald’s refused, Ms. Liebeck sued.
Before a case ever gets to trial, the parties engage in discovery and disclosure. This is where each side can learn what the other side’s claims and defenses are. Lacking the resources of McDonald’s, Ms. Liebeck had to turn to a lawyer who would both wait to be paid (and then to be paid only if she won) and pay, out of his or her own pocket, the costs of discovery and disclosure, just as a Phoenix personal injury lawyer would do. Depending on the size of the case, the costs of discovery and disclosure can exceed $100,000; this is pocket change to McDonald’s but more money than Ms. Liebeck would ever have available if she were required to pay her own way in her lawsuit.
During discovery and disclosure, Ms. Liebeck and her legal team learned that the temperature of the McDonald’s coffee when it was given to the consumer was 40° to 50° hotter than that fit for human consumption. Please don’t get me wrong, McDonald’s makes a very good cup of coffee. I have found that I do need to let it cool for an inordinate amount of time before I can begin drinking it. The problem with giving a consumer coffee at such extreme temperatures is the consumer can suffer severe burns, as Ms. Liebeck did, if the coffee touches the skin. Discovery also showed that McDonald’s had received more than 700 previous reports of injury from its coffee, including reports of third-degree burns, and had paid settlements in some cases. A reasonable corporation would conclude that it needed to lower the temperature of the coffee served to the public as this is a safety issue.
The law requires all of us to reasonably foresee the consequences of our actions. Since almost anyone who ever drank a liquid of any nature from a cup, glass, or other container (that’s all of us) has spilled a liquid on him or herself, it is reasonably foreseeable that someone served a cup of coffee, regardless of the temperature, could spill it on him or herself. It is reasonable for a restaurant that serves coffee with creamer and sweetener to be added to the coffee through a drive-through window to foresee that a consumer will brace the coffee between his or her legs, remove the lid and spill coffee on him or herself while adding the creamer or sweetener.
After selling Ms. Liebeck a cup of coffee that it knew was 40° to 50° hotter than what she could have consumed, it was reasonable for McDonald’s to foresee that as Ms. Liebeck braced the coffee between her legs to remove the lid and add creamer or sweetener she could spill coffee on her legs and, given its extreme temperature, suffer severe burns and personal injuries.
The case the jury heard was not the same case that most of us read about. The case the jury heard was about a company that disregarded prior warnings and sanctions, disregarded the welfare of its customers, and served a product that was not fit for human consumption knowing or (as a Phoenix personal injury lawyer would say) having reason to know that the consumer could suffer serious personal injuries from using the product in its intended manner. That jury took its duties responsibly and told McDonald’s to pay the medical bills along with an appropriate amount for Ms. Liebeck’s personal injuries and a large amount for punitive damages.
Punitive damages are intended to punish the wrongdoer. Punitive damages are not available in most injury cases. Punitive damages were available here largely because McDonald’s not only should have known independently it was serving a product too hot to consume but was warned and had paid previous settlements for serving that product at that temperature. In the end, a jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. This amount was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Liebeck 20% at fault for the spill. The jury also awarded Ms. Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages. But that wasn’t the end of the case; McDonald’s appealed and by the time of the appeals were over, the Judge reduced the punitive award to $480,000 — or three times compensatory damages. The exact amount of the final settlement is unknown.
That the appellate courts reduced the jury’s verdict does not support the notion that jurors are frivolous and that jury verdicts are outrageous. Jurors are everyday people who work hard to provide for themselves and their families and give their time to fulfill one of the most important of civic duties-jury service. Any of you reading this may receive a jury summons in tomorrow’s mail. If you do, I hope you have an opportunity to take part in this important function. I know you will discharge your duties as responsibly and carefully as did the Liebeck jurors. Being a part of the jury process along with Phoenix personal injury lawyers and defense lawyers will leave you with a better understanding of how this process works and the satisfaction of having helped achieve justice for the parties.