Tuesday, January 06, 2009
Student Measured Heat in Coffee Case
By Toby Smith
Of the Journal
Brushes with fame. Many of us have had them, such as the time Angie Dickinson walked past us in an airport and said hello as she went by.
Danny Jarrett's brush with fame came the time he took the temperature of more than three dozen cups of hot coffee.
One of the most discussed tort cases in U.S. jurisprudence originated in Albuquerque on a February morning in 1992.
That's when 79-year-old Stella Liebeck, an amiable, retired Foley's clerk, pulled the lid off a cup of hot coffee to add cream. Liebeck was sitting in the passenger side of her grandson Chris Tiano's Ford Probe in the parking lot of a McDonald's at San Mateo and Gibson SE. Because the car had no cup holders, she held the cup between her knees.
She was going to run errands that morning, and her grandson was going to chauffeur her. But Liebeck wanted a cup of coffee first, so her grandson bought her one at the McDonald's drive-thru. As she pried the lid from the 49-cent drink, the cup slipped forward and the contents filled her lap.
Tiano helped his grandmother mop her soaked sweatpants. That done, the two left to do errands. They hadn't gone far when Liebeck told her grandson she needed to go to a hospital because she was in pain from the hot coffee.
At the Northside Presbyterian Hospital emergency room, a physician told Tiano his grandmother had third-degree burns on her buttocks, inner thighs and even her private parts. She stayed in the hospital eight days. Skin grafts and other treatments followed.
Liebeck, by all accounts, was an honest woman. She felt she had been wronged by being served such hot coffee, and she wanted to warn others, says her daughter, Nancy Tiano, who lives in Santa Fe. Therefore, Liebeck's family hired an attorney who asked for a settlement of $20,000 from McDonald's, mostly to cover medical bills of $11,000.
McDonald's countered with an offer of $800, then turned down repeated requests to settle. Liebeck's case seemed part of a growing wave of so-called frivolous lawsuits filed against fast-food franchises.
For Liebeck, this was no trivial matter; she had been seriously burned.
Even so, McDonald's welcomed a trial rather than set a precedent for similar lawsuits, which the corporation had already faced.
An Albuquerque law firm assisted in McDonald's defense by seeking data that showed McDonald's coffee served in Albuquerque was no hotter than other places in the city. Obtaining that data is where Danny Jarrett came in.
In spring 1994, Jarrett was a first-year law student at the University of New Mexico. Before law school, he had been a field biologist. The Albuquerque law firm was looking for someone with a science background as well as legal expertise.
When the firm contacted him, Jarrett jumped at the chance to earn extra money. He was married and had a 2-year-old son and a mortgage payment.
Jarrett learned he was to take the temperature of coffee served at fast-food places and other restaurants in Albuquerque. To do that, he was given a 7-inch stainless-steel meat thermometer.
With that, Jarrett went off to Wendy's, Burger King, Arby's, IHOP, Denny's, McDonald's and other places. To be discreet, he sat at a back table but didn't wear dark glasses or a trenchcoat.
Only once, Jarrett says, did someone take notice of his presence. That was a waitress at a Carrow's that stood on the corner of Montgomery and Wyoming NE.
"When she came by to refill my coffee, she saw my notebook and pen and the thermometer stuck in my cup," he says. "She didn't say anything. Later, when I looked up and saw her in the corner, she was pointing at me and talking to another waitress."
After three weeks, Jarrett turned in his data. He had found that temperatures ranged from 115 degrees at the coolest to 180 degrees at the hottest. He also found McDonald's coffee to be the hottest by a wide margin.
The nadir of Jarrett's brush with fame came when Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants convened in N.M. District Court on Aug. 8, 1994. Jarrett didn't testify at the trial, and his data wasn't used. Instead, a coffee industry authority said that, if tested properly, as he had done, McDonald's coffee was no hotter than coffee served everywhere.
On Aug. 18, 1994, a jury found McDonald's served Liebeck dangerously hot coffee and asked the court to award $2.7 million in punitive damages.
The amount sent shockwaves across the world.
The trial judge later reduced that figure to $600,000, a sum McDonald's and Liebeck approved in late 1994. Liebeck wound up with an amount said to be close to $300,000.
Nancy Tiano says her mother was "never happy about the incident" and that "the burns and court proceedings took their toll." During her final years, Tiano says, her mother had no quality of life. The good news is that the settlement helped to ease the end of her life by paying for a live-in nurse.
Stella Liebeck died in 2004 at age 91.
Law schools, including UNM's, often cite the "McDonald's Coffee Case," as it has become known, as a poster child for tort reform. McDonald's never discusses the case, though the uproar did cause the corporation to put larger warning labels and more of them on its coffee cups. Reportedly, the corporation has never lowered the temperature of its coffee.
Jarrett's brush with fame reached its zenith when in 1994 his name appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in an article about the McDonald's Coffee Case.
Now 42, Jarrett is managing partner of the Albuquerque office of Jackson Lewis. These days, he drinks Starbucks coffee. He prefers a grande, non-fat, no-whip white mocha, for $3.95. He has never taken its temperature.