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A Cup of Coffee… Was McDonald’s Coffee Case Unreasonable?

Millions of Americans start their day with a cup of coffee and some pay outrageous prices for their morning fix. My law school roommate went through a pound of coffee a week. Being on a tight, student budget, I often indulged as well since there was rarely anything else to drink in the apartment. I drank so much coffee that I honestly lost the attraction to do it.

A similar thing happened in college with mac ‘n cheese but that’s a tale for another day. Add a balance disorder and the doctor’s advice to avoid excessive caffeine and coffee has not been welcome in my life for decades. That said, I never had disdain for coffee nor the folks who drink it. That all changed in 1994 when 70 year old Stella Liebeck suffered serious burns from a hot coffee spill at McDonald’s.

I lost count, years ago, of how many jurors cited the “McDonald’s coffee case” as prime example of why there should be a limit on juror awards. The tales of a jury system gone mad echoed through the halls of every courthouse I have been in since that verdict. I also lost count of the number of times that I have tried to explain the truths behind Stella’s case: that McDonald’s knowingly decided to serve its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees (40 above industry standards and recommendations) because it increased sales, how McDonald’s knew its coffee severely burned multiple people every year, how McDonald’s decided to pay the burn victims instead of serving safer coffee, how all Stella wanted to settle her claim was her medical bills paid and McDonald’s refused (she was hospitalized for 8 days), how the jury awarded Stella one weeks worth of coffee sales to teach McDonald’s a lesson, and how the judge reduced the award.

My goal in these discussions was never to convince my audience anything about Stella’s case. To the contrary, I only wanted them to understand that the 12 people who heard all of evidence made a decision and, as a result, justice was served. One of the founding ideals upon which this country was founded was a trial by jury. Although not perfect, our civil justice system is still the greatest system known to man. Trial by jury is a fundamental right that all citizens should fight to preserve. I am always shocked by the public’s willingness to concede their fundamental rights back to the government. For this, we unquestionably have the media to blame. The media’s sensationalism of Stella’s claim was so irresponsible as to be criminal. The true facts of her case were never made known. And true facts are rarely reported by mainstream media. There is nothing sexy, nothing worth reporting, when a child who was severely injured by a doctor’s incompetence receives a verdict that is capped by tort reform laws. There is nothing sexy, nothing worth reporting when a family who lost their father receives $15,000 because that is all the insurance that the state requires a bad driver to purchase. Instead, the media ceases on large awards, twists the facts and frightens the public into believing that the civil justice system is out of control, that lawyers are to blame for the rising costs of health care and are chasing doctors from the state. None of it is true. To repeat, none of it is true.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or the money to bring the truth to the millions of Americans who have been hoodwinked and fooled by powerful lobbyist groups advancing their own agendas ahead of the fundamental rights of American citizens. Fortunately, Susan Saladoff, a trial lawyer, took the time to make a difference. Her movie “Hot Coffee” airing on HBO is an insightful look into the David versus Goliath world that an ordinary citizen faces when tragedy strikes and the citizen needs the civil justice system. If you have not seen the movie, you should – if for no other reason, to understand how important the civil justice system will be in the event that you or a loved one is seriously injured by the carelessness of another.

Visit the website at

Here is a glimpse of what you will see – Watch Trailer

After watching Hot Coffee, regardless of your previous views, I hope you will understand why I am proud to say that I am a trial lawyer representing victims of preventable tragedies. I won’t ask you to like me – a trial lawyer! No big deal there, I get my rewards from the people I am privileged to help. My hope is that you at least understand me, understand us trial lawyers. Also, I hope you will become an advocate for the civil justice jury system where a jury of your peers hears all of the facts and dispenses justice unfettered by limitations imposed by the government. As Americans we owe it to each other to preserve our fundamental rights free from government intrusion. I certainly hope that views can be changed by a movie instead of by being thrust into a warped system of justice because of a family tragedy only to learn that the government has restricted the system’s ability to help. Trust me, I have met too many clients in my life who said, “If I had only known the truth, I never would have supported the changes.” If the current trends aren’t changed, someday the government’s response may be to ban the sale of coffee. Stranger things have happened.