People are Natural Story Tellers

McDonald’s Hot Coffee– Lesson for Trial Lawyers
The telling of stories is a natural way for people to learn and convey ideas. In fact, it is so natural that at times people will complete lessons they think they have learned by inventing facts that fit their perceived story. This is particularly problematic for trial lawyers. If you tell an incomplete story to a jury–someone will complete it for you and do so through their own experiences, real or perceived. Once a juror has completed your story, it becomes the only story and will guide that juror’s thinking and communication with his fellow jurors.

Remember the McDonald’s hot coffee case? Many in the media and general population herald this case as an example of the need for tort reform. If you ask a friend, or a jury during jury selection, what they know about the McDonald’s coffee case, most will acknowledge knowing about it. If you ask them to tell you what happened, you will get a host of stories. They will differ in the details, but the theme will largely be consistent–a greedy plaintiff burned herself with coffee, got millions from McDonald’s, the jury went wild, the system is flawed and needs to be fixed. In order to justify this belief, people who don’t know the facts will unknowingly create the facts to justify their understanding that the system needs reform. The desire to complete the story isn’t evil, it’s natural and their story about the “hot coffee” case reinforces their belief that the system is unfair against defendants and that plaintiffs are looking for an easy, undeserved reward. To many, our civil jury system is referred to as a lottery.

What were the facts in that case? The plaintiff in the McDonald’s case purchased the coffee at a drive through–with that information alone, many assume the coffee spilled when she tried to open it while driving. Of course it was her fault, why should McDonald’s pay anything? But that wasn’t the real story; she was parked, sitting in the passenger seat when the coffee spilled. The coffee was so hot it would take only 15 seconds to cause 3rd degree burns (full thickness burns into the deep tissue). Was she just “greedy, looking for a payday,” as some assumed?. She asked McDonald’s to cover her hospital and medical expenses of $10,000. McDonald’s offered her $800 and the woman turned to our legal system for remedy.

Did McDonald’s encounter a vindictive, ‘runaway jury?” The natural storytellers fill in the blanks in the story and say yes because of the $2.5 million verdict; that this case explains the need for tort reform; that juries cannot be trusted and the system is broken. What the jury actually did dispels those myths. In fact, the jury found the plaintiff to be partially at fault so their verdict for compensatory damages was reduced. The jury found that McDonald’s had been persistently indifferent to the numerous complaints of other patrons who had been burned and wanted to levy punitive damages to motivate McDonald’s to lower the temperature of its coffee. So, the verdict for punitive damages equaled one day’s profit from coffee sales, $2,500,000.00. The punitive damages verdict was considered excessive by the trial judge who reduced that verdict to $600,000.00. Ultimately, the case that could have been settled for payment of medical bills was settled for $500,000.00.

The McDonald’s hot coffee case is proof that our system is not broken but that it works and works well. Over the past 35 years of trial work, my faith in the jury system has been reinforced time and time again. In my experience, the jury has always tried to do the right thing. The jury’s ability to do the right thing often depends on how well we, as trial lawyers, prepare our case and fully provide the facts. Our job is to make sure that the jury doesn’t turn to their natural, storytelling instincts to fill in the blanks or connect the dots.

For the real story see the New York Times article Not just a Hot Cup Anymore.

Gary B. Mims