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July 25, 2012 / Admin

Why would a seemingly innocuous 1994 lawsuit involving a 79 year-old woman who sued the defendant manufacturer for third-degree burns incurred as a result of a defective product have more Google hits than Marbury v. Madison, the landmark decision from the United States Supreme Court establishing the principle of judicial review?  Perhaps if I told you a New Mexico jury awarded Stella Liebeck $2.86 million and the case is better known as the McDonald’s Coffee Lawsuit it will become clear.  Even though the trial court reduced the award to $640,000.00 and the case was resolved through a confidential settlement, Stella Liebeck became the poster-child for frivolous litigation and spawned the tort reform movement.   The case has become the subject of much debate and numerous blogs, both pro and anti tort-reform.

Fast forward to 1998 when a 76 year-old Manhattan, New York, lady suffers burns to her left leg and foot requiring skin grafts and reconstructive surgery.   Rachel Moltner sued Starbucks because the tea was too hot and Starbucks practice of serving the tea in a double cup – one cup inside the other – was a defective design.  Ms. Moltner alleged she should have been warned the tea could spill and injure her.  The trial court ruled in favor of Starbucks and this past week the 2nd United States Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s dismissal of the lawsuit.  What can we determine from these verdicts?   Does Starbucks hire better lawyers than McDonalds?   Are New Mexico jurors more sympathetic than New York jurors?  Or, has the tort reform debate created an environment where jurors are more skeptical of plaintiff claims?

The answers to the first two questions are of no great importance because the “McDonald’s Coffee Case” was a true anomaly.  The vast majority of these type of lawsuits result in defense verdicts like Starbucks, or are dismissed prior to trial.  What should be of more concern is that many years ago the hysteria over a spilled cup of coffee grew into a movement that impacts the rights today of every citizen that has a legitimate claim.  Large corporations that continue to produce defective products can rest easy knowing that their public relations departments  just received a windfall.  The Starbucks case will be used as an example of how the ‘system’ works and how tort reform is successful.   Your choice of beverage may not impact your life to any great extent, but the type of car you drive, the medical device implanted in your body, and the drugs your doctors prescribe all can have dire consequences.   Access to the courts for every citizen that has a legitimate claim is vital to our society and must be preserved in the face of hysteria.


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