This site deals only with the corporate corruption of science, and makes no inference about the motives or activities of individuals involved.
There are many reasons why individuals become embroiled in corporate corruption activities - from political zealotry to over-enthusiastic activism; from gullibility to greed.
Please read the OVERVIEW carefully, and make up your own mind.
The ongoing interest in Stella Liebeck vs McDonald Restaurants is not in the case itself, but in how it was taken over by corporate lobbyists and PR staff, distorted and mythologised, then used to manufacture sloganized evidence in support of tort-reform — against class actions, and punitive damages in product liability cases.
In the process, the good name of Stella Liebeck was smeared by a massive corporate public relations campaign — and she was held out to be a fortune-hunting plaintiff who (it was claimed) hogged a hospital bed for 8 days simply to raise the settlement terms of her damages claim. The name "Stella" was appropriated and used to epitomise plaintiffs making frivolous lawsuits.
The tobacco industry was central to these callous and defamatory activities, but it was not alone. It had the help of a number of industries which had already joined forces in establishing a number of 'tort reform' astroturfs. They were running numerous State and Federal projects which called on the services of existing corporate-funded think-tanks and policy institutes.
Nor did these 'tort-reform/frivolous lawsuits' projects exist in isolation. They ran in association with the "sound-science/junk-science" projects which also began as a tobacco industry scam. Over time, these projects widened out from tobacco industry control to service a coalition of poisoning and polluting industries.
If you trace the use of these terms back, you'll find the same source streams converge at the Manhattan Institute, which was set up by William Casey, the ex-director of the CIA. This was an unabashed pro-corporate-interest think-tank which specialised in public agenda-setting, mainly using subsidised book publishing. Its two most notorious "adjunct scholars" who were funded to promote the ideas of junk-science and tort-reform in the 1990-91 period were Peter Huber and Walter Olson.
Huber has been credited with having invented the term "junk-science" but it now appears that he and his associates simply popularised existing concepts. Olson certainly played a key-role through his "overlawyered.com" web site in promoting frivolous lawsuits as a reason to curb class actions and limit punitive product liability damages. They were supported (via payments to the Manhattan Institute) by generous funding from Philip Morris and a few other corporate sources in the areas of energy and oil, asbestos processing, pesticide and chemical manufacture.
The organizations which played special roles in the frivilous lawsuit/tort-reform side of this collaborative conspiracy which used Stella Liebeck's name as a symbol for their own odious purposes were:
- American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) which had been set up in 1986 by James Coyne, and then taken over by the Wholesalers/Distributors (NAW/NAWD). It was fading fast in 1992-3 when Neal Cohen, a lobbyist for Philip Morris via APCO, took it over and revived it. ATRA's collaborators were:
- Product Liability Coordination Committee (PLCC) and
- The Product Libaility Alliance (TPLA) — both operations run by lawyer Victor Schwartz (funded by many corporations) ,
- Civil Justice Reform Group (CJRG) which grew out of VP Dan Quayle's Council on Competitiveness, Chaired by Kenneth Starr.
- Citizens for Civil Justice Reform (CCJR)
- APCO, the public relations jointly owned and controlled by Philip Morris and its lawfirm Arnold & Porter (it was originally known as A&P Co) became the driving force. It later became APCO & Associates and was part-sold into the GCI Group (essentially Grey Marketing), then onsold to the global WPP Group as APCO Worldwide. APCO provided the staff services for both the junk-science and the frivolous lawsuits projects. Contractors to APCO/Philip Morris were
- The Manhattan Institute with Peter Huber and Walter Olson
- the Washington Legal Foundation (WLF), and
- Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE) co-chaired by Dick Armey and C Boyden Gray
- Pacific Research Institute (PRI)
- National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR)
- The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC) run by New Mexico Governor Garrey Curruthers and Steve Milloy under APCO. It was later passed over briefly to the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company (using Powell-Tate PR as controller), then split off as Steve Milloy's private junkscience.com website and IssuesNet operations where it worked for British American Tobacco under Sharon Boyse. It widened its scope and operated as a general propaganda service company with the help of Bonner Cohen (EPA Watch) and Tom Borelli (Philip Morris) before morphing into an investment fund operation.
- Also closely involved were:
- National Association of Manufacturers (NAM)
- The Business RoundTable (BRT)
- US Chambers of Commerce
- American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)
- Coalition for Universal Product Liability Law (CUPLL)
- HALT (originally an acronym for " Help Abolish Legal Tyranny ")
Some key documents
1992 Feb 27: Mrs Stella Liebeck, a an 81 year old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, ordered a 49 cent cup of coffee from the drive in window of a McDonald's restaurant. The car was driven by her grandson Chris, who parked the car in the McDonal's parking lot so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar.
In trying to remove the lid from the disposable cup, the coffee spilled and Mrs Liebeck received third degree burns to 6% of her body (mainly her inner thighs, buttocks and groin) and lesser burns over 16% of her legs and elsewhere. She spent 8 days in hospital getting skin grafts, and required two years of follow-up medical and physiotherapy treatment.
1994: Liebeck initially sought $20,000 from McDonalds to cover $11,000 in direct hospital, medical and incidental costs. However McDonalds offered only $800.
She then asked Texas attorney Reed Morgan to filed a suit on her behalf in the New Mexico District Court. He had won a similar case, and he accused McDonald's of gross negligence for selling coffee that was unreasonably hot and therefore dangerous. He initially requested $90,000 but McDonald refused to settle.
Morgan then raised the ante by requesting $300,000 — and the dispute was passed to a legal mediator, who suggested that McDonalds should settle for $225,000 (just before the trial) McDonalds refused. So the case went to trial.
1994 Aug: 8-17 Liebeck v McDonald's Restaurants Court case before Judge Robert H Scott. The key facts that emerged at this trial are:
- McDonald's required their franchises to serve coffee at 180-190 degree F (82-88C) despite knowing that at that temperature it could cause a third-degree burn in 2 to 7 seconds.
- Christopher Appleton, McDonald's quality control manager, testified that at the higher temperature, the coffee would scald the mouth or throat, but that commuters wanted it at the higher temperature.
- Many other similar establishments served drive-in coffee at no more than 140 degree F (60C)
- McDonalds admitted that between 1982 and 1992 the company had received more than 700 reports of coffee burns of varying severity, and had settle claims for "more than half a million dollars".
- McDonalds admitted that, despite this lawcase, they had no intention of changing the temperature of their coffee, and that any legal settlement would only constitute a small part of the annual profits they made from 1 billion cups of coffee each year, anyway.
- McDonalds also refused to warn their customers of the high temperatures saying "There are more serious dangers in restaurants"
- The jury awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages but deducted $40,000 for her contribution to the accident. (Total $160,000)
- They also awarded punitive damages of $2.7 million because of McDonald's conduct (equal to two days of coffee sales.)
See Wikipedia Also
1994 Sep 1: Wall Street Journal, "A Matter of Degree: How a Jury Decided that a Coffee Spill is Worth $2.9 Million," by Andrea Gerlin
1994 Sep 14: Judge Robert Scott, in a subsequent hearing, reduced the punitive damages to $480,000 because of legislation which said that it could not exceed three-times the compensatory damages. (A tort-reform which had been pushed through the New Mexico legislture a few years earlier) However, he said he agreed with the need for such damages to make corporations like McDonald's to take notice.
McDonalds said it would appeal the verdict.
1994 Oct 26: An ABC News Special by shock-jock/TV anchor John Stossel included an interview with Stella Liebeck. But by selective editing Stossel managed to convey the message that she was the promoter of a frivolous lawsuit.
The program set its agenda with the title "The Blame Game: Are We a Country of Victims?" and an announcement
"Whatever happened to hard work, accountability, self-reliance? Tonight, a provocative look at the past-time that's sweeping the country and costing you a lot of money." It then detailed numerous welfare rip-offs and social security frauds, before turning to its main theme of ambulance-chasing and frivolous law-suits. An image of a newspaper headlined "Sued Restaurant When She Was Burned by Hot Coffee" carried Stossel's trade-mark gravitas voice-over:
JOHN STOSSEL V/O "... Many of these lawsuits fail. But you might win... Ohh! Stella Liebeck did, because of a cup of coffee. She bought it at this McDonalds, and was holding the cup in her grandson's car ...
STELLA LIEBECK "I said [to grandson], 'Don't you have a cup holder?' He said 'no'. He has a little sports car. Everything is slanted. So I put it between my knees and steadied it with my left hand and tried to get the top off. And it just went ..pssh."
STOSSEL V/O The hot coffee burned her severely. She had to have skin grafts. This, she says, makes her a victim of McDonald's coffee. So she hired this lawyer, Reed Morgan, who sued, saying McDonald's coffee at 180 degrees is too hot. They took it to a jury and the jury awarded them $2.9 million.
STOSSEL [On camera to lawyer] How much of the $2.9 million will you get?
REED MORGAN [Liebeck's lawyer] "I never put the pencil to it. But after collecting expenses and fees it would be roughly, say, $1.2 million. Something in that neighborhood.
STOSSEL V/O Later the judge reduced the award to $640,000. McDonald's wouldn't talk to us about this but food industry consultants say most restaurants sell coffee at that temperature. That they'd lose business if they didn't because customers want it that hot.
STOSSEL [On camera to Liebeck] I'm sorry this happened to you but isn't it partly your responsibility? Shouldn't you know that that's going to be hot if you bought it?
LIEBECK Well, no. No. You would not ever expect a cup of coffee to be that hot.
STOSSEL But this is the same temperature it is at all of the fast food places.
LIEBECK But I don't stop at fast food places as the rule.
[One might also turn this line of questioning back on Stossel. "Would you expect a cup of drive-in coffee delivered in a flimsy cup, to inflict third-degree burns requiring a series of skin-grafts?"] However Stossel then juxtaposed Liebeck's reply with a statement from the tort-reform advocate, Roger Conner. And by this totally artificial editorial jump he defamed Liebeck by suggesting a supposedly 'independent analyst' was specifically critical of her case.
In fact Conner was a corporate lawyer and activist/lobbyist, and his comments about tort-reform were general in nature. He knew nothing about the Liebeck case.
ROGER CONNER, [Screen tag = American Alliance for Rights & Responsibilities] The word of these lawsuits spills out into society, enters into the national conversation. And people start thinking that this is the appropriate way to live.
STOSSEL V/O Roger Conner, founder of the American Alliance for Rights and Responsibility, says these lawsuits send the wrong message,
CONNER: It makes people think, I'd be a chump if I did otherwise. If I take responsibility for what I do and for what happens to me, I'm a fool. Now, when that idea gets loose, America's in trouble.
STOSSEL V/O A few years ago Conner quit his law practice and started a group that would try to show people that a better way to solve problems is not to blame others, but to take responsibility ourselves.
[The last line served no other purpose than to credit Conner with being a high-minded social activist. In fact he was a corporate-funded lobbyist.
Conner's organisation receives $400,000 a year from major law-firms, large corporate donors and right-wing foundations. It is now called the Center for the Community Interest, and it sepecializes in countering the activities of the American Civil Liberties Union.]
|STOSSEL'S PRO-CORPORATE AGENDA|
The only link between Connor's comments and the Liebeck case, is Stossel's own weazel-word statement that " these lawsuits send the wrong message," "These lawsuits" could be considered a general statement, but, when used in this context, they become specifically directed at the Liebeck case.
Also, a more honest journalist than Stossel would not have asked Liebeck's lawyer about his share of a hypothetically $2.9 million ... knowing full-well that the actual damages was only $640,000 ... and knowing that this figure included very substantial legal expenses forced on Liebeck by the intransigence of McDonalds.
Normally lawyers working on a contingency-fee basis take one-third of the proceeds after expenses. Most plaintiffs find this proportion quite acceptable because of the risks taken in trying to sue a very large, very rich and very intransigent corporation. They know that without the lawyer assuming the financial risk, they would have no legal recourse.
Liebeck had originally asked for only $20,000 in full payment for her medical and hospital bills, which, after all, included eight days in hospital while having skin grafts to her thighs and legs (costing $11,000). In America, this was not seen as excessive. However when approached, McDonald's had refused to contribute more than $800 — and it was this that led to the law suit.
Stossel and his researchers would have known this.
Stossel would also have known that, central to the court case, was the acknowledged fact that at this particular outlet, McDonalds served coffee very much hotter than normal: they were servicing a long-distance trucking clientel.
McDonalds had already settled out-of-court many substantial damage claims for coffee burns in the past, yet the company had never made any serious attempt to correct the problem — either by reducing the temperature, or improving the design of their cups.
It was McDonald's corporate intransigence and callous disregard for the injuries they had inflicted on Mrs Liebeck and other customers that led the jury to impose such unusually-high punitive damages. The judge then pointed out that the punitive damages were above the legislation's limit, and so he cut them back — while publically agreeing with the jury that McDonalds needed to be punished severely for its attitude and inaction.
McDonald's decided to appeal, and Liebeck was forced to settle with them for an undisclosed amount to avoid many years of expensive litigation which would not be done on a contingency-fee basis. Her settlement would have been for a lesser amount, generally thought to be in the $300,000 region.
It should also be noted that the original damages were also reduced by the jury's determination that Mrs Liebeck had been partly responsible for the accident. She was held to be 20% responsible, so the damages were reduced by this proportion.
Stossel would have known all of this. But he followed an old journalistic dictum: "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story".
|Stella Liebeck's leg and thigh burns
From a reliable source, but we have no way of confirming that these are the actual photographs of Stella Liebeck's burns.
1995 Feb 13: Arnold & Porter (Philip Morris key lawyers) have sent the company this a 60 second radio-spot script labelled "Coffee". It is being planted by the coaltion of corporations trying to get punitive damage limits imposed (ATRA). See how they have distorted the story already.
A jury awarded a woman $2 .9 million in a lawsuit against McDonalds.
She spilled coffee on her lap while sitting in her car and claimed it was too
hot. Everyday, there's another outrageous lawsuit. Who pays? You do .
[No mention of the damages being reduced to $650,000. And she "CLAIMED" the coffee was too hot.]
1995: Glenn G Lammi on of the more notorious of the propagandists at the Washington Legal Foundation writes in his paper on State suits to seek reimbursment for Medicare bills.
Examples of the excesses of modern tort law include the recent $2.9 million jury award to Stella Liebeck, a woman who burned herself when she spilled a cup of McDonald's coffee.
[The Washington Legal Foundation was funded by corporations (including the tobacco companies) keen on 'tort-reform']
1994 Dec 1: Stella Liebeck decided that she could not spend the rest of her life in legal appeals a dn settled the case for an undisclosed sum.
1995 Feb 13: Ralph Nader explained the substance of the Liebeck case as part of his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. He saw it as evidence of big corporations able to bully individuals who had been harmed by dangerous products.
1995 Feb: CSE patchthrough script - 
1996 Feb 5: story about judgement - 
1995 Apr: Script for 60 radio - 
1995 Feb 23: CSE script - 
1995 Jan 30: The judge reduced the jury award by 3/4 - 
1995 Apr 3: Chicago Tribute Article "Smoke Signals Courtoom Battles: Harley-Davidson, Others try to cut tobacco firm ties.'
• Kimberley-Clark wanted to cut relationship with tobacco since it was defendent in tobacco case
• other makers of paper, glue
• Harley Davidson wanted to break licensing agreement with Lorrilard
• Manville (asbestos bankrupt) now making filters for Eclipse
• mentions Stella Liebeck spilled coffee and role of CSE
* Canada's national post ran story on tobacco" with story of a "would-be suicide who sued the NY subway system for not stopping him from thowing himself under a train"
1996 Feb 5: story about judgement - 
1995: ++++coffee too hot+ATRA 
The particular McDonald's from which Ms. Liebeck purchased her ill-fated coffee was one that catered to a lot of long-haul truckers. These guys like their coffee served extra hot so that it stays warm longer as they drive. To accommodate them, McDonald's cranked up the burners on their coffee urns. The result was coffee that greatly exceeded the temperature allowable by state regulations.
In fact (remember facts?) they'd been cited over 160 times by state health officials in the three years prior to the incident in question for serving their coffee at dangerously high temperatures, but apparently thought it made more business sense to just pay the fines rather than lose those truck-driving customers.
Now, Stella Liebeck was an idiot for holding a coffee cup between her legs when trying to open it. No argument there. But the fact is that, had McDonald's been in compliance with state regulations and not deliberately ignored the more than 160 citations they'd received, her burns would have been much less severe.
Was it worth $2.9 million? I don't know. Certainly it was more compensation than Ms. Liebeck deserved. On the other hand, there is no question that the McDonald's deserved to be punished. Then again, why should she have been the recipient of the punishment money?
McDonald's coffee case
- injury was third degree burns on legs and groin necessitating skin grafts
- practice of serving coffee 20 or so degrees hotter than standard
- early encounters with 700 claims of this time (it settled some for a total outlay > $500,000)
- refusal to pay her medical expenses (about $11,000) - counter offer was $800
- rejection of settlement proposals by her lawyer
- rejection of court-appointed mediator's recommendations that they settle for $225,000
- judge reduced punitive damages from jury's $2.7 m (two days of McDonald's coffee sales) to $480,000
She was an 81 yo New Mexico woman
Someone (maybe a PR flack) wrote to Ann Flanders opining that Stella "a malingering old biddy who pumped up her alleged injuries to get more money. Spending 8 days in the hospital was her lawyers way of creating a situation to make her case appear legit."
Oct 6 1995 "McLawsuit Plaintiffs Should Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, Ann Landers) Moving car?? Grandson had parked
1996 Dec 31: New York Post (reported Jan 6) p 14 Robert E Lahm of the New York State Trial Lawyers Assoc wants to revisit the case — p14 in monitoring of PM Corp Affairs [2074096832/6870]
1995 Mar: Neal Cohen PM op-ed piece Talks about "$2.9m awarded last year in the notorious McDonald's hot-cup-of-coffee case" 
The details of the legal case have now been well clarified, but the deliberate generation of the urban myth has not been exposed to the same degree. See: http://www.bennettlaw.net/pages/mcdonald.htm
See legal case details at: http://www.caoc.com/CA/index.cfm?event=showPage&pg=facts
Also CALA common practice of running "wacky warning label contest" ostensibly to show how lawsuits lead to silly results.
ATRA and APCO developed TV, radio,print and billboard adverts + messages, signs, logos, slogans and PR material.
APCO says it had "changed the nature of the debate from a technical intangible concept to a concept more easily understood by the general public."
Aimed at influencing juries - Lawyers claim that CALA billboards are placed near courthouses, and that TV and radio ads spike during high-profile law cases.
2004 Aug 4: Stella Liebeck died at age 91.