The Constitutional Right To A Jury Trial, The McDonald’s Coffee Case And “Tort Reform”

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As an attorney who represents those injured by the carelessness and intentional misconduct of others, I find myself too often on the defensive when discussing our tort system and how we compensate the victims of negligence. I enjoy pursuing justice on behalf of injured folks, but powerful interests have been conspiring for many years to deprive access to the courts. The right to a jury trial is found in the Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, after all.

I have found solace and ammunition in Stephanie Mencimer’s 2006 book “Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue.” It’s a worthy read.

The No. 1 favorite whipping post for the “tort reformers” is the “The McDonald's coffee” case. Mencimer recounts the case, stripped bare of outrage and talking points. Septuagenarian Stella Liebeck was from a family of conservative New Mexico Republicans and did not initially intend to file suit for the third-degree burns she suffered to her upper thighs and genitals. Rather, she attempted to contact McDonald's directly to alert them to the danger and to request payment for medical bills, which had mounted to $20,000. McDonald's representatives replied that the company had no intention to change its coffee policy but offered Ms. Liebeck $800 for her trouble. She hired a lawyer.

The facts presented at trial demonstrated it was the fast-food behemoth’s policy to serve coffee at 195 to 205 degrees, “liquid temperatures high enough to peel skin off the bone in about seven seconds or less.” Jurors also heard about more than 700 complaints about serious burns caused by McDonald's coffee. McDonald's executives were forced to admit that despite their knowledge that numerous customers had been burned to the bone, they did nothing to change the policy.

The jury awarded $200,000 for economic damages, but this was reduced 20% for Ms. Liebeck comparative negligence. They also awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages, “about two days profits from McDonald's coffee sales.” The trial judge reduced the punitive damage award to three times actual damages or $480,000. The case eventually settled for an undisclosed amount, presumably for less than $540,000, which had survived post-trial motions, and certainly for less than the original verdict of $2.9 million.

Mencimer notes that the “myth that Stella Liebeck actually received $3 million for her coffee spill has proved highly resistant to correction.” It was simply too good a story to let the facts get in the way. “The Liebeck case was a goldmine for tort reformers looking to support legislation (limiting products liability actions) and they used it repeatedly in advertising and testimony.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce bought radio ads complaining about the “ridiculous” verdict. Unhindered by the evidence, the chamber was but one of numerous groups that reduced this complex piece of litigation to politically compelling soundbites. Now you know the real story.

The latest round of political football challenging the right to jury trial involves those who would limit the right to sue for COVID-19 related illnesses. So far, these attempts have been thwarted at the federal level and kept out of the stimulus measures that have supported struggling Americans. This is a continuing struggle, however.

If you or a loved one are the victim of reckless conduct leading to injury, you are entitled to be compensated for you injuries. You should consult an attorney who is familiar with this area of the law and who will assist you in making informed decisions. David Diggs is experienced in all facets of personal injury law.

If you need further information regarding this subject, contact the Law Office of David V. Diggs LLC at 8684 Veterans Highway, Suite 204, in Millersville, by calling 410-244-1189, or by email at david@diggslaw.com.

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