Secrets in the Air
The people who have told you about the McDonald's coffee case may not have felt the need to tell you the whole story. Very few people know more than what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce described in "the court of public opinion." The wisest people on your jury are unlikely to have been told an honest version of the facts. Of course, they may not agree with the McDonald's jury if they did know the facts, but they would certainly understand how a reasonable jury could do what that one did, and would resent having been misled so blatantly. Here's the Wikipedia explanation.
"On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, ordered a 49¢ cup of coffee from the drive-through window of a local McDonald's restaurant. Liebeck was in the passenger's seat of her Ford Probe, and her grandson Chris parked the car so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. She placed the coffee cup between her knees and pulled the far side of the lid toward her to remove it. In the process, she spilled the entire cup of coffee on her lap.
"Liebeck was wearing cotton sweatpants; they absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin as she sat in the puddle of hot liquid for over 90 seconds, scalding her thighs, buttocks, and groin. Liebeck was taken to the hospital, where it was determined that she had suffered third-degree burns on six percent of her skin and lesser burns over sixteen percent. She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent skin grafting. Two years of treatment followed.
ATTEMPTS TO SETTLE
"Liebeck sought to settle with McDonald's for US $20,000 to cover her medical costs, which were $11,000, but the company offered only $800. When McDonald's refused to raise its offer, Liebeck retained Texas attorney Reed Morgan. Morgan filed suit in a New Mexico District Court accusing McDonald's of "gross negligence" for selling coffee that was "unreasonably dangerous" and "defectively manufactured." McDonald's refused Morgan's offer to settle for $90,000.
"Morgan offered to settle for $300,000, and a mediator suggested $225,000 just before trial, but McDonald's refused these final pre-trial attempts to settle.
EVIDENCE PRESENTED TO THE JURY
"During the case, Liebeck's attorneys discovered that McDonald's required franchises to serve coffee at 180-190 °F (82-88 °C). At that temperature, the coffee would cause a third-degree burn in two to seven seconds. Stella Liebeck's attorney argued that coffee should never be served hotter than 140 °F (60 °C), and that a number of other establishments served coffee at a substantially lower temperature than McDonald's.
"Liebeck's lawyers presented the jury with evidence that 180 °F coffee like that McDonald's served may produce third-degree burns (where skin grafting is necessary) in about 12 to 15 seconds (as a reference, the boiling point of water is 212 °F or 100 °C). Lowering the temperature to 160 °F (71 °C) would increase the time for the coffee to produce such a burn to 20 seconds.
"Liebeck's attorneys argued that these extra seconds could provide adequate time to remove the coffee from exposed skin, thereby preventing many burns.
"McDonald's claimed that the reason for serving such hot coffee in its drive-through windows was that, because those who purchased the coffee typically wanted to drive a distance with the coffee, the high initial temperature would keep the coffee hot during the trip. However, the company's own research showed that customers intend to consume the coffee immediately while driving.
"Other documents obtained from McDonald's showed that from 1982 to 1992 the company had received more than 700 reports of people burned by McDonald's coffee to varying degrees of severity, and had settled claims arising from scalding injuries for more than $500,000.
"McDonald's quality control manager, Christopher Appleton, testified that this number of injuries was insufficient to cause the company to evaluate its practices. He argued that all foods hotter than 130 °F (54 °C) constituted a burn hazard, and that restaurants had more pressing dangers to warn about. The plaintiffs argued that Appleton conceded that McDonald's coffee would burn the mouth and throat if consumed when served.
"The trial lasted from August 8-17, 1994, and the twelve-person jury reached their verdict before Judge Robert H. Scott on August 18.
VERDICT AND SETTLEMENT
"Applying the principles of comparative negligence, the jury found that McDonald's was 80% responsible for the incident and Liebeck was 20% at fault. Though there was a warning on the coffee cup, the jury decided that the warning was neither large enough nor sufficient. They awarded Liebeck US$200,000 in compensatory damages, which was then reduced by 20% to $160,000. In addition, they awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages.
"The jurors apparently arrived at this figure from Morgan's suggestion to penalize McDonald's for one or two days' worth of coffee revenues, which were about $1.35 million per day.
"The judge reduced punitive damages to $480,000, three times the compensatory amount, for a total of $640,000. The decision was appealed by both McDonald's and Liebeck in December 1994, but the parties settled out of court for an undisclosed amount less than $600,000."
U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Despite the very official sounding name, and the logo that looks a lot like one for the U.S. Post Office, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is not a part of the U.S. Government. It is a special interest lobby, and it drives "tort reform" initiatives. It describes itself as:
"The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the world's largest business federation representing more than 3 million businesses of all sizes, sectors, and regions. It includes hundreds of associations, thousands of local chambers, and 106 American Chambers of Commerce in 94 countries.
"Whether you own a business, represent one, lead a corporate office, or manage an association, the Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America ® provides you with a voice of experience and influence in Washington, D.C., and around the globe. Our core mission is to fight for business and free enterprise before Congress, the White House, regulatory agencies, the courts, the court of public opinion, and governments around the world.
"From its headquarters near the White House, the Chamber maintains a professional staff of more than 300 of the nation's top policy experts, lobbyists, lawyers, and communicators. The Washington staff is supported by eight regional offices around the country; offices in New York and Brussels; an on-the-ground presence in China; and a network of grassroots business activists."
As a character on The Simpsons once said when watching Mr. Burns sign a petition that would make it easier for Mr. Burns to harvest babies for their "supple" organs, "If Mr. Burns is signing, I'm signing, too. Everybody knows that rich people always do what's best for the little guy."