December 1st, 2010

Hot Coffee Goes Sundancing

Everyone has heard about the McDonald’s hot coffee case where Stella Liebeck was scalded with third degree burns. And almost everyone has an opinion. Every so often, someone knows the actual details. Most though, just know that some lady spilled hot coffee on herself and sued McDonalds for millions. A Google search for hot coffee Stella Liebeck turns up over 11,000 hits, and hot coffee lawsuit turns up 60 million.

Now a movie has been made called, appropriately enough, Hot Coffee. And this movie explains why you know about this suit, why it’s part of the discussion over the civil justice system, and how it was used (and misused) for propaganda purposes. This is the blurb from the Hot Coffee site (which also has a trailer for the film):

Seinfeld mocked it. Letterman ranked it in his top ten list. And more than fifteen years later, its infamy continues. Everyone knows the McDonald’s coffee case. It has been routinely cited as an example of how citizens have taken advantage of America’s legal system, but is that a fair rendition of the facts? Hot Coffee reveals what really happened to Stella Liebeck, the Albuquerque woman who spilled coffee on herself and sued McDonald’s, while exploring how and why the case garnered so much media attention, who funded the effort and to what end. After seeing this documentary film, you will decide who really profited from spilling hot coffee.

Why write about this now? Because the documentary was selected today to play at the Sundance Film Festival. The festival picked just 16 films out of 861 submissions.

The Sundance site had this blurb on the film:

(Director: Susan Saladoff) Following subjects whose lives have been devastated by an inability to access the courts, this film shows that many long-held beliefs about our civil justice system have been paid for by corporate America.

The incident occurred in 1992, 18 years ago, and this one case still fuels debate. Why? It may because there are continuing attempts by the corporate world to gain immunity for negligent acts by calling it tort “reform.” And the way the argument is made is by looking for outlier suits, and trying to use those outliers as a means of changing the system as a whole. (Whether the McDonald’s case is an outlier will depend on your own viewpoint after reading the facts, but that is how “reform” politics fundamentally  works.)

The debate rages on.


May 6th, 2010

Starbucks Hot Tea Lawsuit: Merit or Not?

The case popped up yesterday when it was reported in Reuters: Suit was brought against Starbucks because a woman was scalded by tea. With no  facts other than the bare bones Complaint, the writer then jumped in to discuss the Stella Liebeck McDonalds coffee case.

Once in the hands of Reuters, it went to the Gothamist. If you Google Starbucks hot tea case now you will see no shortage of stories on it, including HuffPo, CBS and the UK’s Telegraph. The story has gone international.

Ted Frank picked it up at Overlaywered. Frank, however, cautiously withheld his opinion because the Reuters article “fails to indicate sufficient facts to determine whether [plaintiff’s] scenario reflects injuries from a spill that was her own fault or the fault of Starbucks.” David Lat mocked it at Above the Law, asking  of Frank, “Where’s the outrage?”

Facts, facts, facts. That’s what makes and breaks lawsuits.

So I called plaintiff’s counsel, Elise Langsam. She’s been practicing 30+ years and has handled her share of scalding cases, often from showers where the landlord failed to set the water temperature controls properly. I wanted to know what actually happened with the Starbucks tea.

Here’s the deal. The plaintiff is Zeynap Inanli, a pro tennis player. Pro athletes aren’t generally the type of people that trip over their own two feet. And she didn’t.

The tea was bought at Starbucks near Grand Central Station on Lexington Third Avenue. The barista — coffee house devotees love that pretentious name for a counterperson — put the lid on, but didn’t put it on tight.  As Inanli walked with the tea, that lid popped off and Inanli’s arm was scalded with the contents.

Inanli was admitted to the Weil Cornell Burn Unit for five days as a result.

Combine unsecured lid with the fact that the tea was so hot it caused second degree burns to the arm of the tennis player, and you have the elements of an action. So, two simple facts are at play: The failure to secure the lid and the scalding temperatures.

As Langsam told me, “You don’t put molten lava in a cup with a loose lid.”

Will Starbucks say otherwise when they answer the lawsuit and ramp up the press machine? I would expect so. That’s what defense lawyers and press flacks are paid to do. So one day, assuming that Starbucks has a competing set of facts, it will get presented to a jury who will look the witnesses in the eye and try to determine fault. Maybe one, maybe the other, maybe a little bit of both. What will the result be? I don’t know, I didn’t see it happen and I won’t be on the jury.

But is this the making of an article in Reuters and a growing news story? I wouldn’t think so. The unsecured lid seems like run-of-the-mill negligence. The scalding hot tea might be a local store problem, or a company-wide problem, but only time (and discovery) will tell with that. If it’s a company-wide problem with plenty of past complaints, then maybe there is news. But I don’t see it yet. [Addendum: Here is a particularly moronic report from Lisa Mateo at WPIX in New York, who did man-in-the-street interviews without bothering to find out how the incident happened. That’s journalism?]

All in all, seems like a painful problem for the plaintiff, but most likely a rather simple fact pattern. The complaint is here:Inanli-v-Starbucks-Complaint

Update:  The Media’s Failure in the Starbucks Hot Tea Lawsuit