October 31, 2006
Stella Awards & Legal Profession Myth: Jury Not Out to lunch on McD's Coffee (Or Why Harrison Ford Won't Read LPB Again)
Posted by Alan Childress
Aproposner* my previous post on urban legends of the legal profession and alleged frivolous litigation (all with whopping jury awards) that turned out to be fake: Such whoppers always unfairly invoke the name of Stella Liebeck (as in your next email, "This years Stella Awards Winner played w/ fourty live cobras and got fatelly bit and then sued Harrison Ford!--and won!!). You know Stella: she settled a case against McDonald's for her horrific burns from their jet-fuel coffee [my term]. She is real and her case was too--though not how it was publicly reported at the time and used since then by corporate propagandists. I guess if she sued them, after, for their libeling her and questioning her integrity, using provably false facts about the case, that'd be a frivolous lawsuit too and another example of her greedy get-rich scheming. (She just wanted to repay her daughter the medical costs.)
Regardless, it is a fitting case to use as propaganda in a different direction: jurors are not stupid and the legal profession did not wrongly manipulate them into forking over millions of Micky D's precious Best Buy Bucks to the 79-year-old Stella. Post-case interviews with the actual jurors (and reports from the judge who sat the case) show a thoughtful and initially-skeptical jury looking at all the facts and making the call as they saw fit on the evidence. Their views on the case are part of a website collecting debunking reports of this case, linked here. Its best part, to me, is a little ways down (the third entry) under a heading Coffee Spill Cases: it's a file used apparently for teaching this and other cases by Ralph Brill at Chicago-Kent, which includes a specific excerpt from Richard Wright on the jury interviews and how the case was presented by Reed Morgan for the plaintiff (under subheading PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS AND EMPIRICAL DATA). It is worth a read if only to have some contrafacts handy if you are in the legal profession and your layfriends keep using the travesty against McDonald's to try to make you feel bad you're a lawyer, when you have so many better reasons to feel bad.
Why Stella? How did her little case get such traction? Certainly not by her bragging to her friends that she scored thousands of dollars off of Ronald at the mere sacrifice of her genitals (I am blunt for a reason--people need to see her injuries for what they were, not a social snub, hurt feelings, or a day at the ER mooning George Clooney). I think part of it is that McD's is such a positive institution in America and an ambassador to the world of U.S. culture. I am not kidding, and I honestly think that's a good thing. And to be fair, the people using this case are not from McDonald's, which settled it privately. But I doubt the media impact of this 'cautionary tale of the legal profession' would have earned much traction if the careless or at least insensitive injurer had been a mortician or Allstate. The defendant in such a case would be excoriated and the jury praised. The plaintiff would not be a poster child, yet the defendant might well be (as for example the funeral home in Georgia that piled bodies out back rather than cremate them as promised the families--just how hard was it to fulfill the promise?). And in any event the legal profession would not be put on public trial so readily. A bit more after the jump.
* "Aproposner my earlier point" is from the French for "appropriate to, and further recycling of, my earlier tome..."
The power of McD's image is such that Stella and all us lawyers were easier to blame and distort than such an icon as the Golden Arches. I actually understand that on some level -- how could Ronald do us harm all while comforting sick children in his House? (Forgetting his obvious harboring of a fugitive Hamburlgar [see, again, Harrison Ford].) But I wish to push back that initial presumption of correctness on McD's part by recalling some actual facts from actual jurors who were not hoodwinked or just charitable. Their decision, right or wrong, was the product of proof and deliberation. The lawyers on all sides presented their evidence honorably, from what I can see.
The legal profession has many real problems and image problems, and many of the real ones of self-regulation are the focus of some of Mike Frisch's posts from the perspective of a former bar prosecutor. But Stella's case is not one of them, and we should recognize that not only is her good name casually victimized in the continuing disinformation campaign -- but also her quite-reasonable lawyer Reed Morgan . . . and the legal profession as a whole. And nay, does not that say something about America itself? ["I thought he was pre-med." "Don't stop him, he's on a roll."]
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