Court throws out verdict because defense mentioned Liebeck case

by Walter Olson on April 26, 2011

“A defense lawyer’s fleeting reference to the ‘uniquely iconic’ McDonald’s coffee case was enough for the Utah Supreme Court to order a new trial in a pedestrian accident lawsuit and allow the plaintiff to seek a larger damages award.” [Matthew Heller/OnPoint News; Jodie Hill/Downtown Lawyer] And Abnormal Use is out with a new interview of Ted Frank, who has written frequently on the hot-coffee case for this site, and who says:

The Stella Liebeck case was exactly the sort of thing that turns into an urban legend, and there are certainly a lot of inaccuracies that crept into the story as it went viral. The Liebeck case got politicized, however: it was an outrageous result and picked up as a poster child for tort reform, and, fascinatingly, the trial lawyer lobby, instead of reasonably saying “Look: the justice system is never going to be 100 percent correct, there have been a dozen hot coffee cases before this one where the courts got it right and threw it out, and you can’t make public policy based on a single anecdote just because the judge made a mistake here” decided to engage in a misinformation campaign to argue that the Liebeck case was both correct and an aspirational result for our tort system – and a disturbing number of law professors joined that cause. If you Google for the case, the vast majority of results are trial-lawyer sites filled with misstatements of the facts and laws. It’s gotten to the point that, in the majority of tort reform debates I participate in, it’s the trial lawyer who is the first to introduce the subject. I’ve been following the case and rebutting the misinformation on both sides since it first made the news, and it just so happens that the majority of misinformation is coming from the plaintiffs’ lawyer side these days. One of these days, I’ll lock myself in a room for a couple of weeks and write a law review article on the subject so there can be a one stop place for truthful information and arguments about the case.

I, too, gave a lot of thought to writing up the long controversy over the Liebeck case in my latest book, precisely because academic sources, and not just trial-lawyer publicists, persistently spread distortions and misconceptions about the case. Eventually it seemed like too wide a digression from the book’s main themes — but someone still needs to write up that story.