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Doug Landau
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“Hot Coffee” spills the beans on frivolous lawsuit charges

17 comments

Who has forgotten the 2.9 million dollar case where a woman spilled hot coffee on herself, got 3rd degree burns on her legs, and sued McDonald’s for serving her coffee at 190 degrees? The facts of the case may be a little foggy, but everyone THINKS they know the facts of this case. The truth is, most people do not.

I recently attended a screening of the movie, "Hot Coffee" in which the family, doctor, lawyer and witnesses are interviewed to bring the truth about what McDonalds did to light, and how the press and insurance companies distorted the truth in order to portray this as a "frivolous lawsuit." The ABRAMS LANDAU, Ltd. personal injury trial team is against frivolous lawsuits. As a Herndon/Reston area trial lawyer I talk people OUT of bringing unnecessary claims.

But soon a unique production crew of editors, photographers and interestingly, a lawyer, will bring the details of the story to the big screen. “Hot Coffee”, presents Stella Liebeck’s story in a documentary format. The makers hope that it will receive positive feedback at a future Sundance film festival and will outline the facts of the case that made headlines, and discuss why it has lead to so much discussion regarding law suit abuse and frivolous litigation. The film will expose the details by interviewing doctors, lawyers, jurors, and even Stella’s grandson.

The car was parked. There was no cup holder in the car. And McDonalds KNEW that their coffee was so hot that it would scald and cause permanent injury. McDonalds had almost 200 prior scalding accidents. The plaintiff burned through her flesh in her pelvic area and has permanent scars from the scalding and graft sites.

McDonalds admitted in the 1994 hearing that they were aware that they were serving extremely hot coffee but they tried to excuse their actions. The McDonalds representatives explained that most customers did not immediately drink their coffee, but instead drove away from the drive-thru window, and took the first sip 5-10 minutes later. But some customers want their caffeine fix right away, accounting for the hundreds of claims of burning coffee McDonalds had ignored prior to the famous Liebeck case.

So who was in the wrong? Did the elderly woman spill the coffee and throw an exaggerated fit? Or did McDonalds get what they deserved from an impartial jury when someone finally stepped forward to accuse them of their ignorance? “Hot Coffee” will reveal to audiences the true story that set the country ablaze.

17 Comments

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    I’m looking forward to the documentary piece. I recall one of the reasons McDonalds brewed their coffee so hot was that hotter temps extracted more flavor from the beans which meant more cups of coffee out of the same amount of coffee beans. They essentially put their customers at risk in an effort to sell more cups of coffee while using less beans; i.e. lower their overhead and increase their profit margins. It’s funny how that one case comes up every time I pick a jury. I’ve picked them here in Michigan and as far away as California and they always remember the McDonalds coffee case. I hope this film tells the true story behind this famous [infamous?] case.

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    Wait until you see the pictures of her injuries, Tim. Even more eye-opening. They were so bad I had to look away.

  3. Steve Lombardi says:
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    Doug: I grew up in Rhode Island during the 1960’s and 70’s. In New England most people picked up a coffee at Dunkin Donuts and to my knowledge DD hasn’t ever been sued for a similar business practice. And there is a good reason for them not getting sued for a situation like the Stella Liebeck hot coffee debacle. In R.I. you order your coffee “Regular?” (Except we say it really funny.) and you answer with a yes or no. If ‘Regg-U-la” the store clerks adds cream and sugar, then puts on a lid and hands it to you. Why doesn’t McDonald’s do that? Why are they having people mix cream and sugar into a cup of 190 degree scalding hot coffee while seated in their cars, trucks, vans, SUV’s and any other vehicle pulling up to the drive-up window? I can tell you why, it’s because they time clock every step and figure out how to squeeze another dime out of the sale. McDonald’s concern isn’t about the customer as much as it’s about profit.
    Now some of you will argue with me saying it’s just the way of a free-enterprise system of making money. And to you I say okay, bring a knife with you and next time you buy a Big Mack you can add the mustard, catsup and pickle while seated in your brand new Escalade. “Hey junior here’s the knife, watch out don’t stick your sister in the eye. Who’s got the mustard container? Hey did you cut the leather seat?” If as a McDonald’s customer you’re not required to add cold condiments to your burger why sugar and cream to your scalding hot coffee? The business model makes as little sense to me as does the judge reducing the verdict and the public getting all up and arms over the verdict. The Liebeck verdict was as right for it’s customers as was the slogan,

    Twoallbeefpattiesspecialsaucelettucecheesepicklesonionsonasesameseedbun

    Instead of spending money on a toy they could spend money on wages to ask a simple question and then to add the cream and sugar. But customer safety is obviously not something adding to the bottom line.

  4. Jane Akre says:
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    Hi Doug-

    From reading about Hot Coffee- the film isn’t completed yet, they are trying to raise funds to have it premiere at Sundance in 2010. That is the problem with filmmaking in the U.S.- there are no avenues for distribution and sponsorship as there are in Canada, for example.

    Many good films aren’t made as a result.
    We at IB began research on the Stella Liebeck story more than a year ago and ran into the same problems. Plus, her family was reluctant to talk. I’ve always thought this a story that needs to see the light of day.

    Collectively, I believe we may be able to fund/distribute while offering a tax break for donors as a nonprofit.

    The Hot coffee Web site is soliciting donations at this time to complete the project…. Maybe there is a way we can collaborate on the production of this film?

  5. Mike Bryant says:
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    i look forward to seeing this, hopefully a lot of people well.

  6. CupHolderGuy says:
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    One of the reasons we had to get insurance was because of the McDonalds lawsuit. We’ve also had to put a warning on our cup holder (http://www.oh-4.com/cupholder) advising against putting hot beverages in it while travelling at higher speeds or over bumps in wheelchairs and scooters.

  7. Steve Lombardi says:
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    CupHolderGuy: Who said you have to put a warning on your cup holder and what does the warning state? The problem for McDonalds was coffee being served at 190 degrees; it’s not even palatable at 190 degrees. In other words it was undrinkable. Food service is about serving food you can eat. The entire warning issue about “Careful it’s hot!” is in my mind a joke. She knew the coffee was hot, because she ordered hot coffee, as opposed to ice coffee. The problem wasn’t in the warning that the coffee was “hot”; the problem was in the extent to which it was hot. As for you having insurance, didn’t you have any insurance before the McDonald’s verdict? What type of insurance did you purchase and what is the premium for what kind of coverage?

  8. Steve Lombardi says:
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    Jane: I like your idea of collaboration and would like to hear more about what that could mean for the IB. I saw the button to contribute, but hesitated without knowing more about the management side and quality of the film. There was nothing to view a clip. What do you know about the producer and director and the quality of their work? I saw where they received $20,000 from AAJ.

    I do like the idea of the IB banding together and doing things like the Wii give-a-way as a group. It’s a better way to get our message across and to brand the IB. Motorcycle helmets, baby seats, lead-test kits, signs for drivers to hold up to other drivers saying “Put down the DAMN cell phone!”, cheerleader safety equipment or a booklet to parents instructing on how to keep their cheerleader child safe and to avoid catastrophic injury.

    We might also give away a booklet for parents advising of who is getting a free ride from financial responsibility due to tort reforming measures. People need to be warned to insure risks where professionals are getting liability protection from taking responsibility for their own professional mistakes. (Like physicians in Texas.) There are many things we can do as a group. As for the film, the AAJ should be the one contributing a $100,000 to produce that film. If they cared as much about the majority of work most lawyers do instead of pouring all their resources into lobbying about mass torts, the film Hot Coffee would already have been produced and distributed.

  9. CUpHolderGuy says:
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    Mr. Lombardi,

    When I asked my patent lawyer, he said it wouldn’t be a bad idea to include the warning. It specifically says, “Please remove beverages if armrest is in motion. Also use extreme caution when handling HOT beverages.”

    At the initial time we were starting the busines, it was operated out of Canada, as we were living there. I didn’t need the warning, as the court system wasn’t as sue-friendly as it is now that we’re in the States. (But I included it anyway.) Since it seems anyone will sue for anything, we felt it a good idea to carry insurance just in case.

  10. Jane Akre says:
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    I’m hearing you Steve. Collectively we can change the conversation….

  11. James Cool says:
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    CupHolder Guy:

    I strongly recommend you go see Hot Coffee once it’s completed. Ms. Liebeck’s case is absolutely not an example of someone being “sue happy.”

    a.) The car was stopped, not traveling over bumps or in motion

    b.)The coffee was un-drinkably hot, kept so to ensure greater profitability.

    c.) What happened to her were not your typical “ow I burned myself” injuries. Her injuries were positively ghastly.

  12. CupHolderGuy says:
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    No, I’ll definitely check it out, but seriously is it truly outrageous to think that someone might sue my small company if God forbid their cup holder is on a scooter or powerchair, they hit a bump, and a hot liquid spills on them?

    I’d be silly to NOT carry insurance, right?

  13. CupHolderGuy says:
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    I also meant that last comment in a hypothetical accident scenario.

    I mean our cup holder works great, but a consumer operating outside of what is common sense might face some issues.

  14. doug landau says:
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    Dear guys, One of the main facts that got the jury angry with McDonalds was their callous disregard of the the health and safety of the public. They didn’t have just 10 or 20 prior scalding incidents, they had over 150 ! Cupholder guy sounds very responsive and responsible. I am sure that if he had a product that was certain to cause devastating, permanent injury (such as 190 degree scalding hot liquid in a flimsy cup with no reinforcement), he would take reasonable steps to keep more people from being injured for life. McDonald’s did NOT get the message until this jury verdict was handed down. It is one of the positive effects of placing a case like this in the hands of a jury to decide the case after hearing all of the evidence. Doug Landau

  15. Steve Lombardi says:
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    Cupholder Guy: Do what you’re doing, keep adding common sense and evaluation; warn of dangers and you’ll be okay. But please see the movie and let us know what you think of it.

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    Hey Cupholder Guy – thanks for taking part in the conversation.

    Yes, it would be at least a little silly if someone brewed their OWN coffee at nearly 200 degrees (intentionally, despite having hundreds of reports of burns caused by same on hand), filled up a flimsy styrofoam cup with it, put it in your company’s cupholder (which is replete with warnings), and went speeding down speed bump alley, sloshing near boiling fluid all over the place. Any sensible person would expect to run the risk of being burned.

    Given those facts, it would be even sillier if the individual above tried to sue you. But silliest would be a lawyer who spent his own money and time to bring that suit against you. You and I would both find that ridiculous, and so would a jury, I imagine.

    What we are talking about with Hot Coffee, the documentary, is a company (McDonalds) that did all those foolish things, but handed the coffee off to an elderly woman who, incidentally, was parked in the parking spot when she spilled the 190 degree coffee on herself, resulting in 3rd degree burns so bad that she needed skin grafts.

    The more I learn of this case, the more comfortable I am with the jury’s decisions.

  17. Facebook User says:
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    I’m very excited i stumbled upon this site. My friend was telling me how I shouldn’t practice in the area of personal injury because of all the frivolous lawsuits “those attorneys” are known for, citing the McDonald’s case. This of course made me furious because people are completely ignorant of the actual facts of the case, yet love to reference it when they are degrading the profession. It is good news to hear they are making a film to enlighten those too lazy to read about it. I think it will help to some extent with the negative opinions so many have, though I am not insinuating all plaintiff’s attorneys make the best decisions as to what cases to pursue…

    And poor Cupholder guy, your patent attorney has you thinking people will sue for just about anything. I’m sure Canada is different, but it’s not as bad as you were lead to believe. Your patent attorney was trying to protect you in every possible way he could think of, which included “improbable but not impossible”. If it makes you feel any better, in Louisiana if something is obvious or “common sense” as you put it(such as hot liquids spilling out of a cup holder when driving over bumpy terrain) then you normally would not be liable under our Products Liability Act for an inadequate warning. Now if your cup holder didn’t work properly as was intended, then that would be a different issue, but not for omitting a warning for what you suggested.

    But glad to hear about the movie, I will gladly pass this information along to my colleagues.