Personal Injury Cases in Massachusetts: Tort Reform, Lies and The Truth – Part 3 of 3

In my previous posts on this multi-part subject of tort reform, I discussed what tort reform is, who is behind it, and what it would do to the average Massachusetts citizen, in taking away your legal right to recover for injuries you’ve suffered because of someone else’s negligence.

Now I’ll address the twisted story of what the insurance industry uses as ‘Exhibit A’ when they argue for tort reform: The famous “McDonald’s Coffee Case”. You’ll see that what this case is really “Exhibit A” for, is not telling the full story or reporting all the facts, which results in complete disinformation. (Otherwise known as “spin.”)

This is the case of Liebeck vs. McDonald’s Corp. Stella Leibeck was a 79 year-old grandmother in New Mexico, who suffered third degree burns over her legs and lower abdomen after she purchased coffee at a McDonald’s drive-through, back in 1992. Liebeck sued McDonald’s for producing coffee that was so hot it couldn’t be handled safely, never mind actually consumed safely. This type of case is known as a Product Liability suit. A jury awarded her $160,000 in damages, which reflected their determination that Ms. Liebeck was 20 per cent at fault for the accident (she spilled the coffee on herself.)

These next two points that follow are extremely important:

1) The jury also awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages against McDonalds – because the jury found shocking evidence that McDonalds Corp. had previously received more than 700 complaints about coffee-related burns in the ten years that preceded Ms. Liebeck’s injuries – and yet chose to do nothing to correct their system of coffee making, because it would have cost the company ‘too much money’ to change their standardized system of brewing coffee through their thousands of franchises across the United States. Think about that: Can you imagine what 700 separate letters look like – all complaining and warning of the same problem – coffee so hot it was causing horrific burns – and yet McDonalds made a “cost-benefit” decision to do nothing to correct the problem! This is exactly the kind of decision that Ford Motor Company became famous for, with the old “Pinto” bumpers causing gas tank explosions at low-speed impacts. Once again: Corporate profts at the expense of human safety.

2) After the verdict, the media reported that a New Mexico jury had awarded Mrs. Liebeck nearly $3 million in compensatory and punitive damages for her burn-related injuries. But what the media didn’t report was that the trial judge reduced the $2.7 million punitive damage award by more than 82 percent! This point illustrates two other key points in the tort reform debate: One, the safeguards that are built into the civil liability (tort) system, which tort reform advocates don’t tell you about: A jury can award what it feels is appropriate, but the trial judge has the power to reduce (or enlarge) a jury award, in the interests of justice. And two: The distortions that tort reform advocates regularly engage in – telling people only half the story – the half that suits their purposes.

And the McDonalds Case” doesn’t end there. There are a few more critical facts I can almost guarantee you, that you’ve never heard about, with this story:

1) McDonald’s rejected a pre-trial settlement demand of a mere $20,000 by Mrs. Liebeck’s attorney. (As a Massachusetts personal injury lawyer, I think $20,000 as payment for suffering third-degree burns over your abdomen, lap and legs is more than reasonable, given the above evidence that was discovered.) McDonalds rejected this settlement offer despite the fact that Mrs. Liebeck was hospitalized for eight days of in-patient hospitalization and required multiple skin grafts due to the burns she suffered;
2) McDonald’s was fully aware that liquids served above 140 degrees caused serious burns upon skin contact, but refused to change the standardized practice, because changing a nationwide system would cost ‘some money’.
3) Despite numerous media reports, Mrs. Liebeck was not the driver at the time she was injured, but was passenger in her grandson’s car.

So, as the late broadcaster Paul Harvey used to day, now you know ‘The Rest Of The Story.” Tell your friends this, and remember it the next time you hear the words “outrageous jury verdicts”, “lawsuit crisis” and “tort reform.” Because a lot is at stake in this debate – namely, your right to go to court and recover damages if you’re injured. And trsut me, a Boston injury lawyer, I can assure you: that’s no small order.