Tort Reform Is A Lie: Hot Coffee Still Being Used to Mislead

Here's the lie:

The lies used to support corporate efforts to continue to restrict regular people's access to the courthouse are powerful. And, sadly, they work. Routinely, potential clients who are sitting in my office will reference the famous McDonalds "Hot Coffee" case and try to assure me that their case isn't like the Hot Coffee case.  Their case is real. 

Here's the thing, the story everyone knows about the Hot Coffee case is a myth. It's a lie pushed by big business and their tort "reform" groups to poison the minds of potential jurors and make it harder for those who have been legitimately injured to received fair compensation. 

So, What Happened?:

In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck bought a cup of takeout coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque and spilled it on her lap. She sued McDonald’s and a jury awarded her nearly $3 million in punitive damages for the burns she suffered.

Before you hear all the facts, your initial reaction might be "Isn’t coffee supposed to be hot?" or "McDonald’s didn’t pour the coffee on her, she spilled it on herself!" But that would be before you hear all the facts.

Here are the facts:

Mrs. Liebeck was not driving when her coffee spilled, nor was the car she was in moving. She was the passenger in a car that was stopped in the parking lot of the McDonald’s where she bought the coffee. She had the cup between her knees while removing the lid to add cream and sugar when the cup tipped over and spilled the entire contents on her lap.

The coffee was not just “hot.” It was very dangerously hot. McDonald’s policy was to serve it at an extremely hot temperature that could cause serious burns in seconds. Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries were far from minor. 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. (See the video above for pictures.)

Importantly Mrs. Liebeck’s case was far from an isolated event. McDonald’s had received more than 700 previous reports of injury from its coffee, including reports of third-degree burns, and had paid settlements in some cases.

Mrs. Liebeck offered to settle the case for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses and lost income. But McDonald’s never offered more than $800, so the case went to trial. The jury found Mrs. Liebeck to be partially at fault for her injuries, reducing the compensation for her injuries accordingly.

But the jury’s punitive damages award made headlines — upset by McDonald’s unwillingness to correct a policy despite hundreds of people suffering injuries, they awarded Liebeck the equivalent of two days’ worth of revenue from coffee sales for the restaurant chain. Two days. That wasn’t, however, the end of it. The original punitive damage award was ultimately reduced by more than 80 percent by the judge. And, to avoid what likely would have been years of appeals, Mrs. Liebeck and McDonald’s later reached a confidential settlement for even less than that.

Here is just 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.
  • An expert witness for the company testified that the number of burns was insignificant compared to the billions of cups of coffee the company served each year.
  • At least one juror later told the Wall Street Journal she thought the company wasn’t taking the injuries seriously. To the corporate restaurant giant those 700 injury cases caused by hot coffee seemed relatively rare compared to the millions of cups of coffee served. But, the juror noted, “there was a person behind every number and I don’t think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that.”
  • McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that McDonald’s 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.
  • McDonald’s admitted at trial that consumers were unaware of the extent of the risk of serious burns from spilled coffee served at McDonald’s then-required temperature.
  • McDonald’s admitted it did not warn customers of the nature and extent of this risk and could offer no explanation as to why it did not.

After the verdict, one of the jurors said over the course of the trial he came to realize the case was about “callous disregard for the safety of the people.” Another juror said “the facts were so overwhelmingly against the company.”

That’s because those jurors were able to hear all the facts — including those presented by McDonald’s — and see the extent of Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries.

But that's not the story that the public has heard. Tort reform advocates lied about the facts of the case and the fake story gained traction. It went viral. So viral that now this story is what is most often cited by jurors and others when explaining why they don't trust lawyers, why they don't like lawsuits, and why they think plaintiffs are just out for a quick buck. 

And it's all a lie.

 

 

If you want to read more, start here.

Can You Trust Your Company's HR Department?

A fellow blogger has a post out this week titled "Who Do You Report Harassment To If the Harasser Is the CEO?".  It is a thoughtful article and it makes the excellent point that HR for every company needs to bake into their policies a method by which an employee can internally report sexual harassment being committed by the CEO or owner of a company without risk of retaliation. I think that is an excellent goal to strive for and I hope that all HR departments set that as a goal.  There is only one problem with the premise of the article. 

The effort will almost certainly fail. 

Michael Corleone: "C'mon Frankie... my father did business with HR, he respected HR."
Frank Pentangeli: "Your father did business with HR, he respected HR... but he never trusted HR!"

 

 

HR is, in my opinion, possibly the most challenging role for any manager to do and do well. It is arguably designed to fail. The problem is obvious: HR serves two masters. On the one hand, HR is designed to serve as a helpful ombudsman to employees. To assist employees who are being mistreated. To conduct thorough investigations and correct inappropriate behavior against employees. On the other hand, HR is required to defend management against accusations of unlawful employment practices. HR is usually directly involved in the termination decisions that lead to EEOC filings. HR is then in charge of or at least heavily involved in drafting the company's defensive statement of position filings, arguing that the company is blameless. Thus, the very department that an employee is supposed to trust with his or her career and feel comfortable making a complaint to is the same department that will be spearheading the fight against the employee when it all goes south. 

What this means in most companies is that, no, you cannot trust HR to help you. While many HR officers have their hearts in the right place when they start working in the field, they can't help but know who is responsible for signing their paychecks. Hint: it's not the employee bringing a complaint against a member of management.  

So, should you bring complaints to HR? Yes, you should. In fact, in many cases you are legally required to do so or you risk waiving any claims you may have against the company for the discrimination or harassment you are reporting. Just don't assume that HR's only role is to help you. Because it isn't. While HR may be trying to assist you they are also assessing corporate risk, documenting your complaint in a way that will assist the company in defending against your complaint, and looking for ways to satisfy the demands of management. 

Here are a couple of quick tips: 

  1. Make all reports in writing. When push comes to shove down the road, HR is liable to either not "remember" you made a complaint or to remember it substantially differently than you do. Putting your report in writing is the only way to prove you made a complaint, when you made it, and to whom the complaint was made.  
  2. You know that written report from number 1, above?  KEEP A COPY. A written complaint does you know good if you send the only copy to HR. It might...you know...get lost. 
  3. Consider going outside the organization to the EEOC. If your complaint involves EEO-based (age, sex, race, religion disability, color) discrimination or harassment then consider making a complaint to the EEOC sooner rather than later. There will be little question that a report to the EEOC is protected activity under the law. This gives you a somewhat higher level of protection from retaliation than if you merely report internally. 
  4.  Consult with an employment lawyer. If you are in a situation in which you feel you need to make a complaint against management then, make no mistake, you job IS at risk. Start looking for a qualified employment attorney who represents employees. Be warned, in many parts of the country there aren't that many who lawyers who specialize in representing employees. So start looking before you need one. And don't expect such a lawyer to visit with you for free. This is not a simple car accident case and you aren't looking for a PI lawyer who can take your case on a contingent fee basis. Employment law is very specialized and contingency fees are generally not available for consulting services. If you find a qualified lawyer to advise you, however, it is money well spent. 

Bottom line: Yes, you should report harassment or discrimination internally to your company's HR department. But that doesn't mean you should blindly trust the HR department. Understand that they serve two masters and protect yourself accordingly.  

Same-Sex Spouses Enjoy FMLA Protection In All But Four States - And Yep, Texas is One of the Four

There has been a good deal of reporting over the last month or so about the Department of Labor's recently-implemented final FMLA rule that expanded the definition of “spouse” under the FMLA to include employees in legal same-sex marriages. Both employee-side and employer-side groups praised the new rule because it brought uniformity to FMLA regulations.

Although this rule took effect on March 27, 2015, a federal district court ruling in Texas left the status of the new rule in limbo.

After the DOL issued its final rule, Attorneys General in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Nebraska filed suit in a federal district court in Texas asking the court to strike down the DOL’s final rule. The court granted an injunction and halted the DOL’s enforcement of its final rule. Given this ruling, it was uncertain what the DOL would do. The agency has since announced that it will not enforce the rule in the four states of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Nebraska.

In a court filing, the DOL said: “[W]hile the preliminary injunction remains in effect, the [DOL does] not intend to take any action to enforce the provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) . . . against the states of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, or Nebraska, or officers, agencies, or employees of those states acting in their official capacity, in a manner that employs the definition of the term “spouse” contained in the February 25, 2015, final rule . . . .”

However, the DOL confirmed it will enforce the rule in the remaining 46 states. 

Federal Judge: Anti-Discrimination Laws Have Been "Gutted"

As we prepare to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that law has been gutted. This seems to be the growing consensus among academics, employment attorneys and judges. Harvard Law School professor and former federal judge Nancy Gertner writes about the sad state of affairs in this article. Judge Gertner now teaches law at Harvard and was for many years one of the most distinguished federal trial judges in the nation. Gertner writes about a study that was commissioned to review the 2011 and 2012 summary judgment orders in employment discrimination cases in the Northern District of Georgia. Of the 181 cases where the plaintiff had counsel, the Court dismissed 94 percent of them at least in part, and 81 percent in full. Racial hostile work environment claims were dismissed 100 percent of the time.

But don't go thinking that these results from Georgia are an aberration.  They aren't. As Judge Gertner points out, "[t]he Georgia results mirror the results nationwide. 60 percent of motions for summary judgment are granted in general, but in employment discrimination cases, the court dismisses from 70 to 95 percent of the cases."

The simple truth of the matter is that federal judges from trial courts to the Supreme Court have interpreted the Civil Rights Act virtually out of existence. This is so across judicial philosophies, across the political spectrum and even across presidential appointments. Gertner writes:

Women, minorities, people over forty and the disabled bring discrimination cases only to lose in overwhelming numbers. So little do the judges think of discrimination claims that they rarely allow them to get to a jury at all. Federal courts have legitimized practices that would have horrified the early supporters of the Act.

This is rapidly leading to a situation in which employees who have suffered discrimination can't even obtain qualified legal counsel to represent them. Fewer and fewer good lawyers will represent plaintiffs in these cases because the odds are stacked against them regardless of the strength of the case.

Unfortunately, if these trends don't change, the protections against discrimination envisioned by those who authored the Civil Rights Act may vanish forever. As the study cited by Judge Gertner points out, even cases with incredibly strong facts are statistically likely to be thrown out by a judicial system that has become hostile to even the most valid of discrimination claims.  Take the example case cited by Gertner's article - a racial harassment case in which the plaintiffs alleged that their employer had created a racially hostile environment:

Mr. Whorton used the N-word at manager meetings and went out of his way to use that term despite plaintiffs’ objections. Defendants used the N-word “on virtually every occasion” they were present at the club, and it “was not uncommon” for that term to be directed towards plaintiffs. On one occasion, Mr. Whorton called a staff meeting to address the issue of his use of the N-word. During that meeting, he stated that he was too old to change the way he spoke, and he invited anyone who did not like it to quit. On another occasion, Mr. Whorton stated, “What do your people want? When this was a white club, my customers used ashtrays. Ever since the n—–s have been in the club, the cigarettes have been put out on the floor. The difference between blacks and n—–s is that n—–s put their cigarettes out on the floor.” Plaintiffs allege four additional comments. First, Mr. Whorton once asked an unspecified person or persons whether “days like this [make] you wish you people had stayed in chains?” Another time, Mr. Whorton saw someone wearing a shirt with a monkey on it and asked, “Are the Obama shirts in?” Mrs. Whorton once said she realized she was using the classical form of the N-word when she should have been using the contemporary form. Lastly, Mr. Whorton complained to plaintiff that he could not trust African Americans, and said, “Dwayne . . . look at me! I know you don’t like this – n—–s don’t appreciate s–t.”
Here, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the facts simply show that the Whortons are racist, bigoted, and/or offensive people. However, “Title VII is not a civility code, and not all profane or [racist] language or conduct will constitute discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment."

That's right, the court granted summary judgment against the plaintiffs in this case. The court held that this case was not even strong enough to warrant a jury trial.

Surprised by the result? Unfortunately, I am not. Any plaintiff-side employment lawyer can rattle off a long list of strong discrimination cases that the courts have poured them out on. It has become so bad that few new lawyers are willing to join the thinning ranks of plaintiff-side employment lawyers. Sadly, I can't blame them.

I learned of Judge Gertner's article while reading U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf's excellent Hercules and the Umpire blog article "When it comes to employment cases, judges are killing the Civil Rights Act of 1964." He has done a study of his own cases similar to the Georgia study (see here and here). Turns out his own dismissal rate of employment discrimination cases was just as bad as those courts studied in the Georgia study.  He writes: “The fact is that the law on summary judgment motions in employment cases favors the granting of summary judgment motions in a high percentage of the cases and, not surprisingly, that is what you see happening in the Northern District of Georgia and with ‘yours truly’ too.”

While I appreciate his candor, I do respectfully differ with Judge Kopf to the extent that he seems to imply that he feels his hands are tied with regard to this issue. The fact of the matter is that the letter of the law does not "favor the granting of summary judgment motions in a high percentage of [these] cases." Quite the opposite. The letter of the law states that summary judgment is a tool to be used sparingly and only to weed out the most meritless of cases. The default is always supposed to favor the resolution of factual disputes by a jury trial.

Unfortunately, many judges have, perhaps subconsciously, adopted a clear bias against victims of discrimination that has worked its way into the very fabric of how the judiciary approaches these cases. It has become the norm. It has become acceptable. But, it isn't in the letter of the law. It just isn't.

If there is a solution, it will have to start in the district courts. Summary judgment motions are primarily in the control of district court judges. Yes, courts of appeal weigh in but they generally support the district courts with regard to summary judgment rulings. Truly, the only way this situation can be remedied is if district court judges take a long hard look at their approach to discrimination cases and realize the degree to which bias has become a normal part of courts' analysis of summary judgment motions. The Supreme Court has never required that the idiotic McDonnell Douglas burden analysis be used in any case. In fact, a strong argument can be made that it violates F.R.C.P. 56 because of its rigidity. The only purpose McDonnell Douglas serves is as a way to make application of a bias appear to be application of a technicality. The lawyers and courts all know it isn't a legitimate test - that's why we don't ask juries to follow it in the few cases that make it to trial.

My modest proposal: dump the hyper-technical, bias-disguising tests. Get back to the basics. The letter of the law is actually quite simple - if there is a question of fact, the case must go to a jury. If there is any evidence that the decision at issue may have been motivated by illegal discriminatory bias then the case should not be summarily dismissed. It should be resolved by a jury trial. It really is just that simple.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the question before us is whether we will we be celebrating a birthday or a funeral? The answer to that question is now in the hands of the district courts.