Many believe that personal injury lawsuits are frivolous. It is a common stereotype that people exaggerate their personal injury claims to get huge settlements. The McDonald’s hot coffee case is used by those in favor of tort reform as the prime example of this so-called problem. This myth was recently addressed by the Utah Supreme Court in the Boyle v. Christensen case.
In this lawsuit, John Boyle, a former professional golfer, was hit by a car driven by Kerry Christensen, while crossing in the cross walk. Boyle had to have back surgeries that impaired his ability to lift things or play golf and sued for $370,000 in damages. When the closing argument was given by Christensen’s lawyer, she stated:
It's a per diem analysis. How many days has it been since the accident? How many days for the rest of his life? And how much per day is that worth? That's what's been done here. That's how we get verdicts like in the McDonald's case with a cup of coffee.
Mr. Boyle’s Counsel, Karra Porter, objected to this statement believing it trivialized the damages that her client sustained. The judge overruled the objection and allowed the defense to continue.
I am sure that almost everybody has heard about the McDonald’s Hot Coffee case. We have all seen the Seinfeld episode where Kramer sues Starbucks after spilling coffee on himself through his own silly actions. The case is a fixture in pop culture as a lawsuit that was pointless.
People often get confused with the McDonald’s Hot Coffee case and think that it was a frivolous lawsuit about an unremarkable woman who sued McDonalds over some minor burns and got a big verdict. In reality this case was misconstrued, some might even say deliberately.
What really happened was Stella Liebeck went through a McDonald’s drive-through as a passenger in her grandson’s car. She put the coffee between her legs and removed the cover so she could add cream and sugar when the car was not in motion, and hot coffee spilled all over her lap. It is important to note: this coffee was not just hot, it was scalding (180-190 degrees Fahrenheit to be exact). This caused third degree burns, capable of burning through flesh, on her thighs, buttocks, genital and groin areas. She was physically disabled for two years and had to undergo skin grafting and other treatments.
The evidence in the court case was strongly in favor of Stella Liebeck. McDonalds had known about over 700 claims that were burned by the coffee in a ten year period. McDonalds also claimed to keep their coffee at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain flavor, however, experts testified that burn hazards existed with liquids 140 degrees or higher and that liquids at 180 degrees will cause third degree burns between 2 to 7 seconds. McDonalds even argued that their customers expected their coffee to be that hot and that their customers would not be drinking the coffee in their car but at home, giving it time to cool down; McDonald’s own marketing research showed that customers want to drink their coffee immediately.
At the end of the trial the judge upheld the jury’s finding of liability and even called McDonald’s actions “callous”. The judge denied McDonalds' motion for a new trial.(Article). Just this past year at the Sundance Film Festival, a documentary called "Hot Coffee" was released that explains the real story behind the McDonald’s lawsuit myth.
This brings us back to the Boyle v. Christensen case. The Defense played off of the passions of the jurors by referring to a case that is commonly misconstrued to be the height of frivolous lawsuits, and compared it to Boyle’s case in an attempt to reduce the verdict. If this objection had been sustained, it is likely Mr. Boyle would have been more fairly awarded damages for his serious, and very real, injuries.