The Hot Seat

by Shelby Yastrow

 

I have had a very satisfying career in the law. I was third in my class at the Northwestern University School of Law and an editor of the Law Review, I had a good first job in a prominent Chicago law firm (and I was later a partner in a small firm that a few of us started), and I was the Chief Legal Officer and Executive Vice President at McDonald’s Corporation.
Fortunately, I’ve also had more than my share of successes—courtroom victories, negotiating major contracts, escaping dangerous lawsuits, and working out settlements in sensitive cases where public litigation, regardless of the outcome, could present unwanted problems.

 

But am I remembered for these successes? No! Wherever I go, whomever I meet, and to this very day, I’m faced with the same question: “How did you lose the famous ‘Hot Coffee’ case?” The question, of course, refers to the 1992 lawsuit where a jury in Albuquerque, New Mexico, awarded a 79-year-old woman, Stella Liebeck, nearly $3 million after she spilled coffee on her lap and suffered serious burns. There was no allegation that the cup or the lid was defective, nor that a McDonald’s employee spilled the coffee on Ms. Liebeck.

 

On the contrary, she admittedly spilled the coffee on herself after going through the drive-thru in a car driven by her grandson. While opening the wrapper of the burger she’d purchased, she placed the cup (after the lid was opened) between her knees, and, not surprisingly, some of the coffee sloshed over the rim of the cup as the car went down the drive and turned onto the street.

 

When the jurors were later interviewed and asked how they justified awarding her nearly $3 million, some offered the age-old reasoning that often seeps into the minds of jurors: “She was a nice lady and McDonald’s could afford it.”
In fact, the trial judge later granted a new trial, and McDonald’s and Ms. Liebeck settled rather than have a retrial of the case.

 

As evidence of how I’m forever haunted by that case, it even came up at the company event held for me on my retirement from McDonald’s several years later. The emcee read a series of telegrams from invitees who could not attend, some serious and some fake, and among them was one from Stella Liebeck which read: “Dear Shelby, enjoy your retirement. I will miss you, but I will always have a warm spot for you.”

 

For what it’s worth, I’d like to assure the readers of Bad Lies that the pages are fireproof.

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