Oct 8

What of that jury verdict in the “X” criminal trial? (And comment on the McDonald’s coffee spill lawsuit)

The quick answer is that I have no opinion because I was not in court during the trial. I wasn’t there to listen to the testimony of fact witnesses or watch their behavior or body language. I wasn’t there to listen to the testimony of expert witnesses or observe whether any expert argued with opposing counsel doing cross-examination (usually a big negative, because expert witnesses, as experts in their field, should be confident enough to state their positions without jousting). Nor was I there to see the physical and documentary evidence, that is the weapon(s) and photographs of the bloodstained body and pattern of bullet holes.

The jurors were there, hopefully paying attention. Regardless of juror demographics, they almost always reach a correct and fair decision, but in any event they heard and saw all available information to make an informed decision.

This brings to mind the infamous $2.9 million verdict the New Mexico jury awarded to the 79-year old plaintiff in the McDonald’s coffee spill lawsuit (Liebeck v. McDonald’s). This case is still a lightening rod for everything that is supposedly wrong with the tort system: greedy plaintiffs and lawyers and out of control juries. The point here is that like the jurors hearing and seeing the evidence firsthand at a criminal trial, one must have the full facts before being able to speak knowledgeably and intelligently.

Liability facts. Ms. Liebeck purchased a scalding cup of coffee (180˚ to 190˚F) from the drive through window at a McDonald’s. Her grandson was the driver and she was the passenger. The car did not have a cup holder. The grandson parked the car so that Ms. Liebeck could add cream and sugar to the coffee. She placed the cup between her knees and in the process of pulling off the lid (which is difficult to do when coffee is extremely hot), the entire cup spilled and soaked her cotton sweat pants, which held compressed the scalding water against her skin. Plaintiff’s expert testimony established that coffee served at a lower temperature would have allowed time Ms. Liebeck to remove the soaked clothes before she suffered serious burns.

Compensatory damages facts. Ms. Liebeck suffered third degree burns on 6% of her skin and first to second degree burns more than 16% of her legs. She suffered terrible pain and remained in the hospital for a week where she underwent skin grafting. During this time, he weight dropped from 103 to 83 lbs. Ms. Liebeck’s legs were permanently disfigured and she was partially disabled for two years.

Punitive damages facts. From 1982 to 1992, McDonald’s had logged more than 700 claims over excessively hot coffee temperature and had paid out $500,000 to settle many of the claims. McDonald’s made its coffee hot because the coffee industry recommended hot temperatures to get the best flavor from coffee beans. But its quality manager conceded at trial that coffee served at 180-190˚ would scald the mouth and tongue. The problem for McDonald’s was that it did nothing to warn its customers in a way that they would notice warnings about excessively hot coffee.

Pre-trial settlement facts. Ms. Liebeck, who had never before brought a lawsuit, tried to settle with McDonald’s for just $11,000 to cover her medical expenses. When she was rebuffed, she hired an attorney. The attorney made a $90,000 demand, McDonald’s offered $800. The rest is history.

Jury verdict and afterwards. The jury awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages (pain and suffering) and assessed 20% liability to Ms. Liebeck and 80% to McDonald’s, thus reducing the actual award to $160,000. In ruling on McDonald’s post-trial motion, the trial judge reduced the $2.5M punitive damages verdict to $480,000, a number three times compensatory damages. Judges typically reduce out-of-line damages on post-trial motions. The parties eventually settled for an undisclosed amount under $600,000.

Conclusions. First, don’t believe and get bent out of shape over every news report about a newly filed complaint asking for zillions of dollars or a large jury verdict. The amount requested in a complaint is meaningless and many times inserted for publicity purposes. And jury verdicts are ultimately knocked down by the courts so that damages are in line with damages awarded for similar injuries in other cases or the parties settle for a much lower amount.

Second, know the facts before entering a debate on a popular or hot issue. It’s easy to adopt slogans and positions that match what one wants to hear and believe, but one should not believe everything one hears. Each person owes it to him or her self to become knowledgeable.

Third, the people who criticize the tort system are the first to run to a plaintiff’s lawyer if they or a loved one suffer a serious injury, even a second degree burn that caused loss of skin and months of terrible pain. It’s easy to criticize if your not the one suffering.