April 19, 2011
Hot Argument, Cold Court
In a case involving a plaintiff struck by a truck while in a crosswalk, the Utah Supreme Court held that defense counsel's "McDonald's coffee case" reference in closing argument warranted reversal:
Before we analyze this statement, it may be useful to explain the cultural context of the McDonald’s coffee case, more formally known as Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, P.T.S., Inc. Few cases have ever achieved as much notoriety among the general public of this country as the McDonald’s coffee case, fueled by its wide-ranging and repeated publicity in national and local news media. It has been mocked in extremely popular entertainment television, including The Tonight Show, The Late Show, and Seinfeld. It has been debated on talk shows, parodied in television commercials, mentioned in congressional debates, and is firmly lodged in the public consciousness. Mark B. Greenlee, Kramer v. Java World: Images, Issues and Idols in the Debate over Tort Reform, 26 CAP. U. L. REV. 701, 702–03 (1997). “What made the headlines and what is most commonly recalled by the general populace about the . . . case is the size of the verdict and the source of the injury—$2.9 million for spilled coffee.” Id. at 718. In U.S. popular culture, the case has come to symbolize greedy plaintiffs and lawyers who file frivolous lawsuits and win hugely excessive sums in a broken legal system.
The defendant admitted liability and the case was tried solely on damages. Defense counsel argued
Ladies and gentlemen, they want a lot of money for this. A lot of money. What’s been written on the board is called a per diem analysis. . . . How many days has it been since the accident? How many days for the rest of his life. And how much per day is that worth? That’s what’s been done here. That’s how we get verdicts like in the McDonald’s case with a cup of coffee.
The court found the argument improper and prejudical
Given the uniquely iconic nature of this case, the passion it has produced in the media, and the general misunderstanding of the totality of its facts and reasoning among the public, we find it hard to imagine a scenario where it would be proper for a party’s counsel to refer to it before a jury. Generally, as here, such a reference would seem to have the sole purpose of recalling the public outrage over isolated elements of the case—thus improperly appealing to a jury’s passions. It is not the jury’s job to make legal determinations, so no legal arguments from the case are relevant. The facts in the McDonald’s coffee case were not in evidence before this jury and were also utterly irrelevant. Indeed, the one attempt counsel made to make her reference seem relevant was a misrepresentation because the high punitive damages award in the McDonald’s coffee case had nothing to do with a per diem analysis. It is certainly unfair to require the other party to clarify all the misconceptions about this irrelevant case in the limited time allotted for closing argument. The great latitude provided in closing arguments regards reasonable inferences about evidence properly before the jury and does not extend to misrepresentations or efforts to appeal to a jury’s passions. Thus the reference to the McDonald’s coffee case in closing argument was improper.
Reversed. We have this one listed under Hot Topics. (Mike Frisch)
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