Posted in on February 14, 2008

The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth. Media Influence on Litigation.

Most of us take for granted that what we see in the media is fairly accurate, factual and the truth. But how much of the truth are we really getting? Remember the the hot coffee lawsuit? Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, NM, sued McDonalds in 1992 when her coffee that she placed in her lap spilled, causing severe burns? What if we were to tell you…

She wasn’t driving the car; her grandson was behind the wheel and had pulled over to allow Liebeck to add cream and sugar to her coffee.

The temperature of the coffee served at McDonalds was between 180 degrees fahrenheit and 190 degrees fahrenheit. Coffee served at home is usually about 135 degrees fahrenheit to 140 degrees fahrenheit. The quality assurance manager for McDonalds testified that a burn hazard exists for any food substance served over 140 degrees fahrenheit.

McDonalds had knowledge of this hazard and had in fact produced evidence that it had 700 claims by people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some claims involved third-degree burns substantially similar to Liebeck’s. Despite this knowledge, they refused to lower the temperature of their coffee.

Liebeck suffered third-degree burns over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. She was hospitalized for eight days where her treatment included skin grafting and debridement.

Liebeck’s initial settlement request was $20,000 which McDonalds refused.

Liebeck was awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages. This amount was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Liebeck 20 percent at fault in the spill. The jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which equals about two days of McDonalds’ coffee sales.

The trial court subsequently reduced the punitive award to $480,000 — or three times compensatory damages — even though the judge called McDonalds’ conduct reckless, callous and willful.

The parties eventually entered into a confidential settlement which remains closed to the public, despite the fact that this was a public case, litigated in public and subjected to extensive media reporting.

Post trial, coffee at the local Albuquerque McDonalds has dropped to 158 degrees fahrenheit.

Makes you wonder…what else don’t we know about cases we hear about in the media?

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