60 Degrees of Separation: What the Press Never Reported About the McDonald’s Coffee Case
By Attorney Eric J. Parker Parker Scheer LLP – Boston Trial Attorneys
Regardless of whether you closely follow jury verdicts and case settlements in personal injury cases, chances are you have heard about the case of Stella Liebeck, the 79-year-old New Mexico grandmother who suffered third-degree burns over 6 percent of her body, after purchasing coffee at an Albuquerque McDonald’s “drive through” in 1992. Mrs. Liebeck sued McDonald’s for serving coffee that was far too hot to be safely handled, much less consumed. For her injuries, the jury awarded Mrs. Liebeck $160,000 as compensation, which reflected the jury’s finding that Mrs. Liebeck was herself 20 percent at fault for the accident. The jury also awarded the plaintiff $2.7 million in punitive damages – approximately two days of McDonald’s nationwide coffee sales. Ostensibly, this award was in response to evidence that McDonald’s had received more than 700 claims for coffee-related burns during the 10 years leading up to the Liebeck case, and the jury wanted to send a clear message to McDonald’s that causing such burns in the future would no longer remain a profitable practice.
As usual, give the press a story about a woman who was awarded nearly $3 million for spilling coffee on herself, and before you can say “two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun,” they’ve distorted the facts so badly that nobody knows what really happened to Stella Liebeck.
Following the verdict, the national press accurately reported that a New Mexico jury had awarded Mrs. Liebeck nearly $3 million in compensatory and punitive damages for her burn-related injuries. What the press did not report was that after the trial the judge reduced the $2.7 million punitive damage award by more than 82 percent. But where’s the fun in reporting the truth when you have to cite an 83 percent remittitur at the end of the story?
In reporting the McDonald’s coffee case, the press also found the following trial evidence irrelevant to the story:
* That McDonald’s turned down a pre-trial settlement demand of $20,000 by Mrs. Liebeck’s attorney, despite the plaintiff’s eight days of in-patient hospitalization and treatment that included the debridement of her burns and multiple skin grafts;
* That McDonald’s had long been aware that liquids served above the temperature of 140 degrees were known to cause serious burns upon contact with skin, but nevertheless promoted the practice of super-heating its coffee to between 180 and 190 degrees; and
* That, contrary to numerous reports, Mrs. Liebeck was not the driver at the time she was injured but was a front-seat passenger in her grandson’s car.
In the end, the McDonald’s coffee case will not be remembered for what it truly represents – a jury’s direct response to a big corporation’s decision to place profit above customer safety. Instead, Big Business will continue to distort the facts of the Liebeck case to insulate itself from liability for the injuries directly caused by its own negligence and greed.
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About Attorney Eric J. Parker
Eric J. Parker is the Managing Partner and co-founder of the Boston-based trial firm Parker Scheer LLP, with offices in Massachusetts and Nevada. Mr. Parker has 20 years of active experience as one of Massachusetts’ leading civil trial lawyers and holds the highest peer-review rating awarded to any attorney for professional skill and ethics. Mr. Parker is a member of the American Association for Justice (formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America), as well as the American, Massachusetts, and Boston Bar Associations. Mr. Parker is an elected member of the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA; Elected Vice President, Massachusetts Chapter, January 2007), and is a certified member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum. In 2007, Mr. Parker was appointed to the Editorial Board of Massachusetts Lawyer Weekly, the leading weekly legal newspaper serving the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Mr. Parker has been named a Massachusetts Super Lawyer by the publishers of Boston Magazine, every year since the distinction was first created. Mr. Parker’s legal practice focuses on plaintiff-oriented tort litigation, including product liability, motor vehicle tort, medical and dental malpractice, premises liability claims, workplace sexual harassment and assault, aviation-related injuries, and wrongful death. Mr. Parker is a graduate of Vassar College and received his Juris Doctor degree from Suffolk University Law School. In addition to his legal practice, Mr. Parker is also an FAA Certified Private Pilot, and was a founding member of the Board of Trustees of the Media And Technology Charter High School (MATCH) located in Boston (Chairman 2001-2005), the goal of which is to provide inner-city high school students with a successful college education.