With the recent change of guard in Washington D.C. we are beginning to hear more talk about frivolous lawsuits and runaway juries.

The McDonald’s Coffee case is the poster child of these claims. So what’s the deal with this case — What really happened?

A woman was a passenger in her grandson's car and bought a coffee from a drive-through window of a McDonald's. McDonald's served its coffee significantly hotter than the industry standard. When she opened the lid to add cream and sugar, she spilled the coffee.

This foreseeable spill resulted in third-degree burns and the woman required hospitalization for a week.

The woman had to undergo numerous skin-graft surgeries to her thighs and groin area. Nevertheless, she suffered permanent scarring on more than 16 percent of her body.

McDonald's had ignored more than 700 similar claims of coffee burns, many involving children. The corporation even ignored a request from a non-profit burn institute to lower the temperature of its coffee.

McDonald's refused to pay the woman's initial medical expenses of $11,000. Instead, the corporation offered $800.

As her medical bills increased to about $20,000, she finally hired a lawyer.

The woman attempted to resolve her claim out of court. A mediator recommended a $225,000 settlement. The corporation refused and the case went to trial.

At trial, McDonald's corporate representatives denied the existence of other claims. Still, the jury awarded the woman $200,000 to compensate her for her injuries.

Because the woman had spilled the coffee on herself, the award was reduced to $160,000 for contributory negligence.

The jury also awarded punitive damages that were based upon two days of McDonald’s coffee sales. At the time, McDonald's grossed more than $1.3 million a day in coffee sales alone.

Although McDonald’s annual profits then exceeded a billion dollars, a judge reduced the jury award from $2.7 million to $480,000.

McDonald’s balked at paying even this reduced amount. Threatened with a time consuming and expensive appeal, the woman settled the case for a confidential amount.

Most people never heard about the judge's reduction or the final outcome of the case.

The main complaint heard about this case — the size of the verdict — doesn’t even apply in Washington State. Our state law does not allow for punitive damage awards.

Still, the McDonald’s coffee case is often used as argument for “tort reform.” Tort “reform” usually results in legislation restricting individuals from challenging corporate wrongdoing. Frequently this wrongdoing is worse than simply serving coffee too hot.

Now, as government regulatory agencies, health and safety regulations, and civil rights laws are being curtailed, private litigation becomes even more important in ensuring people’s safety and individual rights.

Increasingly deregulated corporations have no incentive to not maximize profits at the expense of people unless there is an enforcement mechanism. Anderton Law Office is a small part of the tort law enforcement mechanism.

 

by, Bob Anderton

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