McDonald’s Coffee Story: Still Misunderstood and Getting Noticed

It’s been nearly 20 years since Stella Liebeck spilled the infamous cup of McDonald’s coffee that led to a $2.9 million verdict and a river of undeserved bad press for the legal profession. While this case has become the poster child for a legal system run amok, those who have successfully planted this case in the minds of virtually every American always manage to leave out some of the more salient details, most of which would likely cause some reconsideration of the verdict. 

Juries tend to be very harsh on companies that know about a potential problem with their product but do nothing about it; here the evidence led to the conclusion that McDonald’s knowingly heated its coffee dangerously high because it looked more appetizing because it created excessive steam. That, combined with the fact McDonald’s had previously been sued for similar claims led the jury to conclude that McDonald’s just didn’t care.  The testimony also showed the plaintiff’s injuries were very severe, that exposure to the coffee leaves serious burns in a matter of seconds and the coffee was spilled accidentally.  The jury award actually represented one day’s profits from McDonald’s coffee sale worldwide.  The award was later substantially reduced on appeal and the parties reached a confidential settlement. 

The public’s continued fascination with this case is on display again following the recent announcement that the independent documentary film “Hot Coffee” will be featured in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. In the film, attorney/director Susan Saladoff uses the McDonald’s case and three others to show how the actions of judges, lawyers and others in the legal profession can be misconstrued by the media and the public.

The lesson here, as any trial lawyer knows, is that quick sound bites cannot accurately capture the various issues at play in the average trial.

Posted: 3/30/2011 12:00:00 AM by Global Administrator | with 0 comments

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About This Blog

Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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