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Mirror Law (TM) : Seinfeld:  Exploring how popular culture depicts the legal system.

One episode of the TV Show SEINFELD mocked the infamous McDonald's Hot Coffee lawsuit.

Kramer sues Starbucks after he spills coffee on himself and suffers some burns. He is represented by Jackie Chiles, a lawyer based in mannerism on Johnnie Cochran, a character who appears in several more episodes, including the series finale.

Is this based on a real case, and how closely does it follow?

This episode takes its premise from perhaps the most infamous lawsuit of modern times, the McDonald's coffee case won by Stella Liebeck in 1994. The episode perpetuates some of the misconceptions surrounding this case, an all-too-common result ever since the case first caught the public's eye (Steve Martin even mentioned it in a New York Times frontispiece welcoming the new millennium). I'd like to take this opportunity to try explaining the case and correcting the record. Anyone who wants to understand the legal system better - and the dangers posed by media interpretation of the law - should take a closer look at this case.

First, wasn't this a silly lawsuit?

Actually, no. The case has been misinterpreted as that of a stupid woman spilling coffee on herself and suing McDonald's over the coffee being hot. This interpretation is given new life countless times each day with those warnings on the styrofoam cups at fast-food restaurants and coffee-shop chains, as well as in this episode of Seinfeld and even Steve Martin's piece in the New York Times opening the new millenium (he wrote: "And think of poor Socrates, with his simple answer to the question 'What is justice?' There was just no way for him to have foreseen a jury's $3 million payout to a McDonald's customer who spilled a cup of too-hot coffee in her lap.").

But that interpretation misses some crucial facts. She wasn't driving at the time; she was a passenger in a parked car. And she wasn't just burned a little bit; she suffered third-degree burns that required hospitalization for eight days, whirlpool treatment, and skin grafting, and that left her disabled for two years.

Moreover, her claim was never so simple or silly as depicted by television. Rather, the claim was that McDonald's was serving its coffee in a way that was too dangerous.

Evidence at trial showed that McDonald's policy was to keep its batches of coffee some 20 to 30 degrees hotter than was drinkable so that it would not have to make fresher batches during the day and the company admitted that the coffee was so hot when sold so as to be "not fit for consumption." It knew that people sitting in cars and wearing their seatbelts like Stella Liebeck was couldn't just stand up and wipe such hot coffee off themselves fast enough to prevent massive burns. It knew that roughly 70 people got injured as a result each year (in fact, this was not the first coffee case against McDonald's; the company had settled for $230,000 just a few years before in a similar case, and a court-appointed mediator had recommended that McDonald's settle this case as well).

The presiding judge even called McDonald's actions "callous" when he upheld the jury's finding of liability and denied McDonald's motion for a new trial.

Second, wasn't this partly her own fault?

Yes it was, and the jury actually said so. Yes, she spilled the coffee and should have been more careful opening the lid. But that doesn't mean that McDonald's is off the hook; it doesn't change the jury's finding that McDonald's should have been serving its coffee in a way that would not result in these kinds of burns on a regular basis. Modern tort law generally allows a plaintiff to recover for their injuries even if they bear some responsibility for what happened; the jury just reduces the plaintiff's recovery by the percentage of the incident they bear responsibility for. That's what the jury did here. They held for Stella Liebeck, but they reduced the damages they would have otherwise granted her by a third.

Third, but didn't she get rich off this lawsuit?

Actually, no. Yes, she was initially awarded $160,000 to cover her medical bills and her loss of income and then she was awarded the staggering sum of $2.7 million in punitive damages (a figure not pulled randomly but based on the estimated money McDonald's makes in coffee sales over two days).

But she never got anything like that amount of money. Using standard principles of law, the judge quickly reduced damages by more than 75 percent to $640,000, or three times the amount of compensatory damages. Then subtract a 1/3 contingency fee for her lawyers, and Liebeck would get about $430,000. This was no lottery jackpot, especially when you consider all she had to go through to get it.

And she still did not even get that much. Both sides wanted to appeal the judge's ruling, and McDonald's obviously had deep enough pockets to appeal this case as long as it wanted. Instead, the parties settled for an amount reportedly less than $600,000 (there were also confidentiality provisions).

What all this means is that the jury's decision in the case of Stella Liebeck was not necessarily the sign of a legal system gone mad. Maybe if you'd been on the jury, hearing all the evidence, you still would have decided for McDonald's. That's okay, too. But the case is more complex than how politicians, late-night talk-show comedians, and Cosmo Kramer have made it seem for years.

Look more closely.


(Editor's Note: for another point of view on the McDonald's Coffee Lawsuit,
click here)

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