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Personal Responsibility

I have just finished reading a book where one of the tag lines is “no excuses”.  It is about taking responsibility for your own actions and not blaming others.  Good idea, but it seems the author of the book has fallen into the same twisted logic that I hear on the radio, from insurance companies, corporations and defendants and their counsel.  It appears that personal responsibility is only something the person injured should be charged with.  The book referenced the McDonald’s coffee case.  It is funny that he fails to see the irony in blaming a grandmother who was severely burned rather than finding fault with the company which failed to take responsibility. I know.  You are probably saying well that was her fault.  Lawyers doing personal injury litigation are warned to stay away from the topic because you will never change a jurors mind about the case where the lady spilled coffee on herself while driving and got millions of dollars.  Why didn’t she take responsibility for her actions?   I have a different question, why wasn’t there the same outrage over McDonald’s refusing to take responsibility?   It appears that like the McDonald’s coffee case, escaping responsibility is the primary goal for those yelling the loudest about others (almost always those who they have injured) not taking personal responsibility.  So at the risk of alienating a large part of my followers, here is a summary of what really happened in the McDonald’s coffee case and why the jury awarded what they did:

Stella Liebeck, age 79 of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was a passenger of her grandson’s car when she was severely burned by McDonalds’ coffee in February 1992. Liebeck. She ordered coffee that was served in a styrofoam cup at the drive through window of a local McDonalds.  After receiving the order, her grandson pulled up and stopped so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup. As she removed the lid, the entire contents of the cup spilled into her lap.   So as a quick recap so far, we have a passenger in a stopped car that spilled coffee in her lap.  If she had just received a minor burn like most of us have gotten from hot coffee or tea there never would have been a lawsuit, but that is what we have been led to believe.  That some lady got a minor burn and then sued and was given millions by a crazy jury, well as Paul Harvey used to say here is the rest of the story:

The coffee that spilled resulted in full thickness burns (or 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, during which time she underwent skin grafting. This grandmother had to undergo debridement of her 3rd degree burns in her groin area and ultimately skin grafts.  If you are not familiar with debridement, it is where they have to remove the burnt and dead skin either surgically or in some cases with a stiff brush.   So after all of this what did she do?  She offered to settle her claim for $20,000. McDonalds refused.

Once suit was filed and during discovery, McDonalds was required to produce documents showing more than 700 claims by people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some claims involved third-degree burns substantially similar to Liebecks, which showed that McDonalds’ knew about the danger and did nothing about it.  McDonalds also said during discovery that, based on a consultants advice, it held its coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees fahrenheit to maintain optimum taste. He admitted that he had not evaluated the safety ramifications at this temperature. The evidence at trial showed that most other establishments that sell coffee do so at substantially lower temperatures, and coffee served at home is generally 135 to 140 degrees. Further, McDonalds’ quality assurance manager testified that the company actively enforces a requirement that coffee be held in the pot at 185 degrees, plus or minus five degrees. He also testified that a burn hazard exists with any food substance served at 140 degrees or above, and that McDonalds coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into styrofoam cups, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat. The quality assurance manager admitted that burns would occur, but testified that McDonalds had no intention of reducing the “holding temperature” of its coffee.

Liebeck’s attorney put on an expert and scholar in thermodynamics applied to human skin burns, testified that liquids, at 180 degrees, will cause a full thickness burn to human skin in two to seven seconds. Other testimony showed that as the temperature decreases toward 155 degrees, the extent of the burn relative to that temperature decreases exponentially. Thus, if Liebeck’s spill had involved coffee at 155 degrees, the liquid would have cooled and given her time to avoid a serious burn.

McDonalds argument at trial was that that customers buy coffee on their way to work or home, intending to consume it there, but their own research showed that customers intend to consume the coffee immediately while driving. McDonalds also argued that consumers know coffee is hot and that its customers want it that way. The company admitted its customers were unaware that they could suffer third degree burns from the coffee and that a statement on the side of the cup was not a “warning” but a “reminder” since the location of the writing would not warn customers of the hazard.

The jury after hearing all the evidence in the case determined that Liebeck should receive $200,000 in compensatory damages. It was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found her 20 percent at fault in causing 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 final verdict was approximately $640,000.00, not the millions you have probably heard.

The most import aspect of the trial is what happened afterwards. A post-verdict investigation found that the temperature of coffee at the local Albuquerque McDonalds had dropped from the 180-190 temperature to 158 degrees fahrenheit.  The same temperature area which her expert testified would have prevented these devastating burns in the first place.

After all that this woman went through did you ever hear McDonald’s accept fault, accept personal responsibility for their actions or even apologize?  Or have you heard the rants and yells generated from a PR machine whose sole purpose is to attempt to minimize and ridicule a grandmother who through her burns, pain and litigation managed to get a company to do the right thing, even if they still refuse to stand up and take responsibility.

So the next time you hear something about where is the personal responsibility, look a little deeper and remember what Paul Harvey said and look for the rest of the story.

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Categories: Business Disputes
  1. March 23, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    Stella’s case has now been made into a documentary movie that was premiered at the 2011 Sundance Movie Festival. It is all about access to justice.

    Are you being served?

    Check it out.

    http://hotcoffeethemovie.com/

    http://hotcoffeethemovie.com/blog/

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