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Monday, November 10, 2008

Rebuttal to the "Stella Awards" and the Truth About the "McDonald's Coffe Cup Case"

Last week I received a Spam E-Mail about the "Stella Awards." The email is a list of "outrageous lawsuits" that purportedly demonstrate that the American civil justice system has run wild and is patently unfair. The awards are named after Stella Liebeck who became famous due to the "McDonald's Coffee Cup Case." Stella Liebeck was an older lady who unfortunately ended up being disfigured by scalding coffee and is now used as a punchline by Corporate Interests.Here is how the email details this case:
"This is America for you. It's time again for the annual 'Stella Awards'!

For those unfamiliar with these awards, they are named after 81-year-old Stella Liebeck who spilled hot coffee on herself and successfully sued the McDonald's in New Mexico where she purchased the coffee. You remember, she took the lid off the coffee and put it between her knees while she was driving. Who would ever think one could get burned doing that, right? That's right; these are awards for the most outlandish lawsuits and verdicts in the U.S. You know, the kinds of cases that make you scratch your head. So keep your head scratcher handy."
Conveniently, the author of this email fails to give the details of the actual case or cite to the court record. In 1994 the New York Times did an expose on the "urban legend" that is the "McDonald's Coffee Cup Case" and separated the fact from the legend. In an excellent article found here on the Findlaw website, the authors, citing the 1994 New York Times article, detailed the following "McFacts" about the case:
  1. McDonald's knew that coffee was served at a temperature of 18.5 degrees - 20 degrees hotter than other restaurants. The coffee is kept at such a high temperature because it will stay "fresh" longer. In other words, it made financial sense to keep the coffee that hot even if it was at a hazardous temperature.
  2. Stella Liebeck was not driving when she was burned. She was a passenger in her grandson's car when she put the cup between her legs to get the lid off to add cream and sugar. As she removed the lid, the cup flipped backwards and she was hit with the scalding coffe.
  3. Stella Liebeck spent 7 days in the hospital with third degree burns on her thighs, buttocks, and genitalia. She spent 3 additional weeks confined to her home before she returned to the hospital for skin grafts. She lost 30 pounds: from 113 pounds to 83 pounds.
  4. Stella Liebeck's initial demand (her formal offer to resolve the case) to McDonald's was for her out-of-pocket expenses and the money her daughter lost taking care of her. McDonald's countered with a "nuisance value" offer of $800, leaving Stella with no option but to file a lawsuit.
  5. A McDonald's employee testified that the corporation was aware of the risk of dangerously hot coffee, but had no corporate action plan to address it by lowering the temperature of the coffee.
  6. McDonald's received 700 complaints about the over-heated coffee prior to this accident.
  7. The judge in the case reduced the jury's punitive award of $2.7 Million to only $640,000.
  8. McDonald's continues to keep their coffee hotter than the industry standard.
How many people, given the knowledge of the actual facts of this case would feel that the result was unjust? Not many.

The other factor the author of this Spam E-mail fails to note is that there are thousands of legitimate lawsuits filed every year by persons who have been badly injured due to corporate negligence in the form of defective products. Thousands of these cases are treated as a "nuisance" by the corporations and insurance companies. The corporations and insurance companies, even though they are given the option to settle for less money, chose to litigate these cases. When they get hit with a large verdict by a jury, they blame the jury for giving "jackpot justice."

It is the definition of irony that the corporations and insurance companies do not feel the same way when a rogue jury sides with a defendant in a case with strong liability and bad injuries. It is equally ironic that when a misguided or misinformed judge sides with a corporate defendant in a motion for summary judgment and dismisses a legitimate case that this is viewed as "fair."

Corporate America needs to remember that the civil justice system is often the last resort for thousands of Americans because of its frequent lack of accountability. When the system works to enforce accountability, that is justice. Plain and simple.