Letter from reader
regarding the Detroit Shoplifting Case
plus another look at the Infamous McDonalds Hot Coffee Lawsuit
From: Todd Tennis
Sent: Friday, March 15, 2002 9:07 PM
Subject: SSQQ Responsibility Page
Dear Sir, I read with interest your comments on Responsibility on your
I understand that many of the current stories floating around about
seemingly outrageous lawsuits can make it seem like the world has been
turned upside down. However, in many instances, there is more than just a
Limbaugh-worthy headline in these cases.
For example, you mentioned the case of Alwanda Gail Person-Jackson, an
accused shoplifter who died in the custody of a private security guard and
two Rite Aid employees. I assume you cited this example to show yet again
an abuse of the legal system because her family is suing the Rite Aid. I
have attached an article that shows that Mrs. Person-Jackson is not an
isolated case, and that several other accused shoplifters have recently
been killed by security guards in the Detroit area. In my opinion there is
more of a problem here than a grieving family seeking restitution for the
death of a loved one.
Also, you mention (just as everyone who decries the current state of legal
affairs) the infamous McDonald's coffee case, where a woman sued and won
for spilling coffee on herself. The rest of the story is that the
McDonald's in question had received numerous complaints before the woman's
injury of their coffee being too hot. The woman received 3rd degree burns
over her entire groin area that required surgury to correct. The jury in
the case cited that in order to convince McDonald's to lower the
temperature of their coffee, a suitable damage award would be the value of
one day of coffee sales in the state of Arizona. That is where the million
dollar award figure came from. It should also be noted that the award was
later lowered by a judge to a much smaller amount (I can't remember off
the top of my head, but somewhere around $200,000 seems right).
My point is that some of these cases that seem outrageous at first glance
actually may have some merit. There are no doubt silly lawsuits out there,
and the lawyers who take them should be ashamed of themselves. However,
this is no reason to condemn the legal system as a whole. I have yet to
hear of a victorious plaintiff whose case had absolutely no merit.
I sympathize with your concerns regarding the defibrillator issue.
Michigan recently passed legislation granting limited liability for the
use of automatic external defibrillators. Although I am generally opposed
to limits to liability in principle, there are certain instances (such as
good Samaritan laws) where they make some sense.
Finally, I want to add that the article I attached to this came from a
website called the World Socialist. I am not a socialist, nor do I support
any of the views of the website (I found the page off a Yahoo search for
the name "Person-Jackson"). It just happened to have a good (and factual)
article on the topic. Further, I am no fan of Geoffrey Fieger, the
controversial attorney who took the case for Person-Jackson's family. That
said, I absolutely support the family's right to have a day in court. Our
civil justice system is too precious to allow it to be restricted.
With warm regards, Todd Tennis Lansing, MI P.S. No, I am not an attorney.
Response from Rick Archer
I apologize for not replying sooner. The truth is your letter was so profound – I mean this sincerely – that I was actually too flabbergasted to respond to it when I first read it. I stored it to read when I had more time which is you are receiving my reply 10 days late.
I am embarrassed to say I am guilty of over-simplification in my original article on
Responsibility. There is so much information out there and it whizzes past me at such an enormous speed, often it is difficult to take the time to dig more deeply.
Regarding the death of the shoplifting woman, I was unaware that there had been three other suspicious deaths involving shoplifters in the same department chain. An isolated incident can be forgiven, but these three other deaths change the complexion of the story significantly. Now I have quite a bit more sympathy for the claim of wrongful death than before.
Regarding the famous McDonalds coffee case, I was also unaware that the company had been previously warned of the problem. In this case I think the part that is hard to swallow is the ridiculous amount of one million dollars in damages. Pay the victim for the medical fees and give her a thousand dollars for her pain and wasted time, then a sincere “I’m sorry” plus a year’s supply of free Happy Meals and get on it with it…. but a million dollar damage award?? C’mon, this is an insult to every intelligent human being.
Again, I run the risk you will share even more information in the coffee case that will embarrass me further and make me eat even more crow, but on the surface the coffee story still seems incredulous.
However I don’t mind if you make me back down further. The truth is I am grateful to you, a complete stranger, for reminding me yet again that there are two sides to every story.
And yes, Todd, I was shocked to find you are not a lawyer. Maybe you should be one since you make your case so clearly and compellingly. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me.
I am wiser for the experience.
I, too, am flabbergasted. Flabbergasted by your thoughtful response. Thank you very much for your willingness to see both sides of a story. It is a trait, I must confess, that I find myself lacking in at times (I'm working on it!).
As for the McDonald's case, please forgive me, but I must indulge myself just a bit more. According to the information I've found, the woman in question actually sued McDonald's for approximately $20,000 - the amount of her medical costs plus some for pain and suffering. McDonald's refused to settle the case and it went to court. They probably refused to settle because they had several other cases pending worldwide regarding coffee burns. However, if they had followed your advice and paid her medical expenses plus a thousand dollars (happy meals optional), it never would have gone to trial.
The jury gave such a large award due to something called "punitive damages." Not all states allow punitive damages, but the reasoning behind them is to create an incentive for defendants to change their ways by making it too expensive not to. In this case it worked, as McDonald's finally lowered the coffee temperature. On a side note (and I haven't independently verified this), I have heard that the Wendy's chain for a short time offered hot chocolate served at the same high temperature that got McDonald's in trouble. After this verdict, they, too lowered the temp of the hot chocolate. They pulled the product altogether not long after that. (Probably a good thing, since kids - notorious spillers - would have been the main consumer).
Now, all that being said, I certainly don't want to give the impression that I think all lawsuits are valid. Attorneys are out there who are willing to take a silly case on the hope that they can pressure a company into settling for a decent amount of money. I find this type of lawyering contemptible. What is worse, however, and often overlooked, are the corporate citizens who find it easier to ignore a complaint rather than dealing with it in a fair and just manner. Some insurance companies routinely deny claims regardless of merit, forcing claimants to take them to court (often settling for a lower figure than they are due because they can't afford to take on a huge company). This, though, is another point entirely and I will stop my rambling.
Thank you again for such a kind note, and for listening to differing opinions. I get so set in my thinking sometimes that I stop paying attention to opinions contrary to my own. I, too, am wiser for this