On Frivolous Lawsuits

So the discussion here lead to speculations on how a judge will rule on this case. I did a little reading of some bullshit lawsuits in the mid-90s. First probably the most famous one:

A twelve-person jury reached its verdict on August 18, 1994.[16] Applying the principles of comparative negligence, the jury found that McDonald’s was 80% responsible for the incident and Liebeck was 20% at fault. Though there was a warning on the coffee cup, the jury decided that the warning was neither large enough nor sufficient. They awarded Liebeck US$200,000 in compensatory damages, which was then reduced by 20% to $160,000. In addition, they awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages. The jurors apparently arrived at this figure from Morgan’s suggestion to penalize McDonald’s for one or two days’ worth of coffee revenues, which were about $1.35 million per day. The judge reduced punitive damages to $480,000, three times the compensatory amount, for a total of $640,000. The decision was appealed by both McDonald’s and Liebeck in December 1994, but the parties settled out of court for an undisclosed amount less than $600,000.

…Detractors have argued that McDonald’s refusal to offer more than an $800 settlement for the $10,500 in medical bills indicated that the suit was meritless and highlighted the fact that Liebeck spilled the coffee on herself rather than any wrongdoing on the company’s part. They also argued that the coffee was not defective because McDonald’s coffee conformed to industry standards, and coffee continues to be served as hot or hotter today at McDonald’s and chains like Starbucks. They further stated that the vast majority of judges who consider similar cases dismiss them before they get to a jury. From 2002 to 2007, an offshoot from a weekly news column by writer Randy Cassingham resulted in a website called the “Stella Awards”, which purported to give awards to people who filed “outrageous and frivolous lawsuits”.

Now there was one that I had heard about as a teen from a Friend. I looked it up, expecting to find a Snopes page rather than an actual court document. In the telling, my friend said the complainant was a man, and that the ball had been chipped into the woods where it hit an abandoned rail line and bounced back. The case was actually MUCH worse:

At the trial the following evidence, inter alia, was submitted: Crossing the first fairway of the Club’s nine-hole golf course are railroad tracks that are elevated approximately two feet above the fairway. The tracks can be seen from the first tee, and are depicted on the Club’s scoring cards and on a sign at the first tee. The Club has a “free lift” rule that allows a golfer whose ball lands near the tracks to place the ball across the tracks. The “free lift” area is designated by red markers approximately fifteen feet from the tracks. The parties stipulated that the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad Company owns the tracks, the land on which they are situated, and a strip of land that extends 33 feet on either side of the tracks.

On September 6, 1985, the Pelletiers played golf at the Club where Jeannine had played approximately 20 times previously. On the first hole, Jeannine’s second shot landed approximately 43 feet from the tracks. Jeannine’s next shot ricocheted off the tracks, hit her in the face, and injured her nose and face.

At the close of the Pelletiers’ case, the Club moved for a judgment as a matter of law, contending that it owed no duty to Jeannine because it neither owns the railroad tracks nor the land on which they are situated. The trial court denied the motion. By a special verdict form, the jury found that (1) the Club was negligent, (2) Jeannine was negligent, (3) Jeannine’s negligence was not equal to or greater than the negligence of the Club, (4) Jeannine’s total damages were $250,000 and (5) Jeannine’s total damages were to be reduced to $40,000. No damages were awarded to Gerard for loss of consortium. After a hearing, the trial court denied the Pelletiers’ motion for a new trial or, in the alternative, for an addition to the damage award to Jeannine and an award of damages to Gerard. From the judgment entered in accordance with the verdict, the Pelletiers appeal, and the Club cross-appeals.

So I didn’t even know it was from Maine, or that it was THAT bad a suit. Still this case also won some BIG money.

Still the results of this case conform to what many in the comments section said. When there are two negligent parties, levels of negligence are examined for the judgement. These cases also show that the courts can be completely full of shit, as McDonald’s Coffee was NOT abnormally hot, and the complainant indeed spilled the beverage she KNEW to be hot on herself through her own negligence. And the Maine Golf Club had made all patrons clearly aware, and marked where the rail line existed on the 1st whole, and added a club rule where the players could hand-carry the ball across the tracks if they failed to clear them on their first shot, and the complainant elected to take a second swing at the ball after her first shot when terribly wrong.

So what does this say about the self-inflicted gunshot wound in the gun store? Well the shop was INDEED negligent by supplying a gun that by all reason must have had a loaded magazine in it to a customer. Still the officer was likely trained in the safe handling and operation of a firearm, he disregarded this by A) not properly clearing the gun when it came into his possession, B)by sweeping every living soul in the shop, including himself, with a firearm he had not verified as clear, C) By pulling the trigger in a totally negligent manner where both he and a customer were beyond the muzzle…plus if you’re feeling the trigger, holding it like this is NOT going to give you a good feel for the the break.

So yeah, if the court is full of shit, this officer will get a payday for his stupidity….if it’s legit it should rule that the shop WAS negligent, but not even vastly as negligent as the officer who was shot, so no damages awarded IMHO.

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13 Responses to On Frivolous Lawsuits

  1. Old NFO says:

    Shooting ALL the lawyers would be a good start… Just sayin…

    • Weerd Beard says:

      Can we spare Alan Gura? I rather like him!

    • TS says:

      I used to think that way, Old NFO, but have changed my stripes some. I think lawsuits are preferable to government regulation as a way to keep parties responsible. We hear from liberals arguments like “well, whose going to keep food manufactures from poisoning consumers if not the FDA? Whose going to keep chemical manufactures from destroying the environment if not the EPA?” And the answer is lawyers. Sue their ass. Plus market forces dictate that killing your customers is generally bad for business.

      Now of course, the system needs good checks against frivolous suits- mainly that losing them *should* be costly, and holding strong court precedence for what is and isn’t a legitimate claim.

      • TS says:

        Ugg, should be “who’s” not “whose”. I can’t believe I did that twice (and I’ve already had my morning cup of scalding hot third degree burn inducing coffee).

  2. Lance R. Peak says:

    “These cases also show that the courts can be completely full of shit, as McDonald’s Coffee was NOT abnormally hot, and the complainant indeed spilled the beverage she KNEW to be hot on herself through her own negligence. ”

    Except you’re wrong there.

    “The coffee was not just “hot,” but dangerously hot. McDonald’s corporate policy was to serve it at a temperature that could cause serious burns in seconds. Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries were far from frivolous. She was wearing sweatpants that absorbed the coffee and kept it against her skin. She suffered third-degree burns (the most serious kind) and required skin grafts on her inner thighs and elsewhere.”

    “Here is some of the evidence the jury heard during the trial:
    McDonald’s operations manual required the franchisee to hold its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit.
    Coffee at that temperature, if spilled, causes third-degree burns in three to seven seconds.
    The chairman of the department of mechanical engineering and biomechanical engineering at the University of Texas testified that this risk of harm is unacceptable, as did a widely recognized expert on burns, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation, the leading scholarly publication in the specialty.
    McDonald’s admitted it had known about the risk of serious burns from its scalding hot coffee for more than 10 years. The risk had repeatedly been brought to its attention through numerous other claims and suits.”

    from https://www.caoc.org/?pg=facts

    ” 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. Other establishments sell coffee 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. ”

    from: http://www.lectlaw.com/files/cur78.htm

    • Jake says:

      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

      Just like any freshly brewed coffee, in other words. Heck, my Keurig brews at 196°F. Should I sue Keurig and Green Mountain Coffee if I spill it on myself when I pull the mug from under the machine? As Douglas2 noted below, coffee can only be properly brewed and stored at temperatures that are not safe for consumption immediately after being dispensed.

      There’s a principle in law called “assumption of risk” that should have been applied here – by placing the cup between her legs instead of a proper cup holder, she assumed the risk that dangerously hot coffee would spill on her legs and cause injury.

      Despite the idiocy of the court, McDonald’s did nothing wrong.

      • Lance R. Peak says:

        “McDonald’s admitted it had known about the risk of serious burns from its scalding hot coffee for more than 10 years. The risk had repeatedly been brought to its attention through numerous other claims and suits.”

        I am no food service industry expert, but I’m not seeing where your comment “McDonald’s did nothing wrong” holds true here.

        I mean, I am not arguing for any frivolous lawsuits. If something is hot, then it should be understood that there is a potential to become burned. However if something is kept *too* hot, that potential is greatly increased and even made more likely, which is the premise used successfully in this particular suit.

        I am not trying to say you and Douglas are incorrect in any way, but if the temperatures you two have cited are the standard for coffee, that argument should have been easily countered during the trial, right?

        I too thought the suit was stupid at first, until more information came out about how McDonald’s had known for years that they were assuming a liability risk and continued to take it. Now however, you two are claiming that the temperatures are perfectly normal. Were those temperature standards the same at the time of the suit?

        I’m just trying to understand the details here.

        • Bob S. says:

          Lance,

          I notice you make no mention of the fact that Liebeck had been going to McDonald’s for 20 years to get coffee. Do you think in that time, she might have figured out the coffee was ‘too hot”?

          I am no food service industry expert, but I’m not seeing where your comment “McDonald’s did nothing wrong” holds true here.

          Then you are ignoring the evidence presented that most other manufacturers and service providers were in line with what McDonald’s was doing.

          McDonald’s had known for years that they were assuming a liability risk and continued to take it.

          Let’s move the industry and talk about knives; should a company that sells knives that are sharper then there competitors be assumed to have a known product liability?
          Well actually sharper knives reduce the chances of injuries and cuts. So then should any company not selling knives as sharp as the best be at fault?

          No, because no matter how sharp the blade, there is a known and accepted risk. I can’t sue a Pizza parlor for the cheese burning my mouth if I go to the place because they serve the pizza right out of the oven, right?

          Lamborghini admitted it had known about the risk of serious from its scalding fast cars for more than 10 years. The risk had repeatedly been brought to its attention through numerous other claims and suits.”

          So because someone hurt themselves with a product they selected for the very reason (speed) they should be able to hold the company liable?
          Now if they could show the car was defective, yes. Absent that no. Liebeck didn’t show the coffee cup was defective, didnt show the lid was defective, didn’t show the coffee burnt through either…she simply spilled it.

  3. Douglas2 says:

    Lance –
    180°F is absolutely normal as a serving temperature for black coffee, and Stella Liebeck’s lawyers claimed that the temperature of her coffee was actually 156°F to 170°F at the time she spilled it.
    Consumer reports will fail any coffeemaker that doesn’t hold at at least 170°F.
    The specialty coffee association (http://www.scaa.org/?page=cert2) won’t certify a machine that doesn’t brew at 92-96°C (198°F) and hold coffee at >80°C (176°F). The manual for any commercial coffeemaker will recommend similar brew and hold (serve) temperatures.
    Even the fucking ANSI standard for home coffeemakers (http://www.aham.org/ht/d/ProductDetails/sku/4040-210-145) states that the temperature in the dispensing vessel should be kept above 76°C.
    And even if Stella Liebeck had been served coffee at the 135°-140°F temperature that you claim (against all evidence) to be common for home coffee, she still would have had such severe burns, as the liquid was dumped into her sweatpants that held it against her skin. There is absolutely no overlap between “safe” liquid temperature and what is acceptable for serving soup and hot drinks.

    • Lance R. Peak says:

      “And even if Stella Liebeck had been served coffee at the 135°-140°F temperature that you claim (against all evidence) to be common for home coffee”

      I claimed nothing, so enhance your calm. I quoted, as evidenced by the quotation marks and citation, evidence presented at the trial.

      “There is absolutely no overlap between “safe” liquid temperature and what is acceptable for serving soup and hot drinks.”

      So you’re saying if the liquid temperature is “safe”, or able to be ingested without fear of thermal injury, then the beverage is no longer acceptable? I’m not grokking this logic that something must be potentially injury causing in order for it to be “acceptable”.

      • Archer says:

        “So you’re saying if the liquid temperature is “safe”, or able to be ingested without fear of thermal injury, then the beverage is no longer acceptable? I’m not grokking this logic that something must be potentially injury causing in order for it to be “acceptable”.”

        Yes.

        What no one’s addressed yet is the food safety aspect – specifically, the kind the county health inspectors are looking at. One (of many) reason there’s no overlap between “safe storage” temperatures and “safe for consumption” temperatures is the possibility for bacterial growth. Food-borne bacteria can survive and multiply in temps ranging from 35 degrees Fahrenheit all the way to over 140 (that’s 2-60 Celsius). It’s simply not “safe” to keep standing hot food/drinks at less than 140-150 F. You wouldn’t eat it at that temperature – it’d burn your mouth pretty badly – but less than that, bacteria start to grow, and restaurants start to fail health inspections.

        It’s absolutely not “acceptable” to serve a large helping of live E.Coli or Salmonella to customers. So, the “standing” temperature of a pot of coffee (or anything else hot) must remain above 140-150 F – at a bare minimum – to keep bacteria from growing.

        Does that make more sense now?

        • Lance R. Peak says:

          “It’s absolutely not “acceptable” to serve a large helping of live E.Coli or Salmonella to customers. So, the “standing” temperature of a pot of coffee (or anything else hot) must remain above 140-150 F – at a bare minimum – to keep bacteria from growing.

          Does that make more sense now?”

          Not really.

          I mean, I get the need to keep a food item safe from bacteria, etc., but you state that food must be kept above 140-150F to inhibit bacterial growth. If the beverage can be held at a lower “safer” temperature and still inhibit bacterial growth, then why maintain it at such higher temps as 180-190F making it literally undrinkable?

          From the lectlaw cite “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.”

          Okay, anything over 140, which is the bare minimum temp to inhibit bacteria, can cause burns. No one is arguing that. But if something is kept at a temperature where it is not fit to be consumed because it would burn the mouth and throat and then dispensed to actually be consumed, something is wrong with that picture.

          Even you agree that the coffee wouldn’t be consumed at that temperature, but it wasn’t consumed, it was spilled, and caused serious injury.

          I’m not saying that either party was in the right or in the wrong, but if a business hands someone a cup of liquid that they know is not able to be consumed at the temperature they maintain and serve it at, and the customer spills it upon themselves causing injury, unless the injured party deliberately dumped it on themselves the business has to assume some level of culpability in the incident.

          “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.”

          Admitting that your customers were not aware of the dangers of the temperature the coffee was kept at, and also admitting that the statement on the cup was not in a place to notify the customers of the hazard is pretty much a smoking gun. Now, was this smoking gun worth $3 mil? That is another argument entirely.

          Going back to Doug’s opinion: “The specialty coffee association (http://www.scaa.org/?page=cert2) won’t certify a machine that doesn’t brew at 92-96°C (198°F) and hold coffee at >80°C (176°F). The manual for any commercial coffeemaker will recommend similar brew and hold (serve) temperatures.”

          I just looked up for giggles the recommendation from Bunn regarding this. Bunn has a different opinion than you do Doug. They differentiate between hold and serve temps, hold being 175-185F, but serve being 155-175F. The point of that is they recommend serving at a lower temp than holding, so if McD’s served the coffee at 180F +/- 5, they were serving it too hot.

          I don’t know how McD’s could rapidly cool the coffee from hold to serve temp, and that isn’t the point. The point here is that the jury found McD’s liable for serving the coffee too hot, and McD’s *admitted* that they knew they were serving the coffee too hot for consumption.

          So for the tl;dr version, while in the grand scheme I don’t find this lawsuit earth shaking, but I can’t see how it could be considered frivolous.

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