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.  

The so-called “Texas Miracle” is actually a horror story for Texas Employees

Texas politicians like to take credit for the so-called “Texas miracle”. They claim the states relatively stable economy has been made possible by their zealous opposition to “over-regulation, greedy trial lawyers and profligate government spending”. Researchers are finding, however, that this so-called “miracle” has been a horror story for many Texas Workers.

A report this week takes a look at a dismal situation that state leaders have rarely mentioned – the grim side of the workplace: The State of Teas has a record of high worker fatalities and weak benefits. In fact, Texas has led the nation in worker fatalities for seven of the last 10 years, and when Texans get hurt or killed on the job, they have some of the weakest protections and hardest-to-obtain benefits in the country. The New York Times reports:

Texas is the only state that does not require private employers to carry workers’ compensation insurance or a private equivalent, so more than 500,000 workers — about 6 percent of the work force — receive no occupational benefits if they are injured on the job. On-the-job injuries can leave them unable to work, and with little recourse.

More than a million Texans are covered by private occupational insurance from their employers. Those plans are not regulated by the state but are often written to sharply limit the benefits, legal rights and medical options of workers.

Companies that carry workers’ compensation are given immunity from employee negligence lawsuits. While employers offering private compensation insurance are not protected from such lawsuits, many limit their legal exposure through the fine print of private occupational policies that employees accept when they are hired.

“Negligence liability can be contained by mandatory arbitration,” boasts one pro-industry study, conducted by claims processing company Sedgwick.

A 1998 Texas Supreme Court ruling, The Texas Mexican Railway Co. v. Lawrence P. Bouchet, also cleared the way for employers that do not carry workers’ compensation to fire injured workers without fearing a state retaliatory firing lawsuit. The decision was written by Greg Abbott, then a justice on the court and now the Republican attorney general and a candidate for Texas governor.

It is still illegal for employers in the workers’ comp system to retaliate against a worker for pursuing an injury claim, but the Bouchet ruling removed that prohibition for employers that do not carry the state-regulated coverage.

I now see an increasingly large number of employees who come through my office who have been injured on the job and can't get benefits or terminated for reporting an injury, or both and I simply cannot do anything for them because Texas law simply doesn't protect them.  The message to Texas employees is clear: if you get hurt on the job in this state nobody cares and no one will help you. And it looks like it will stay that way as long as the governor, the attorney general, the commissioner of the Texas Workers Compensation Commission and many in the legislature remain in the pocket of big business.

More: You can read the entire New York Times report here.