Marc Galanter, John and Rylla Bosshard Professor of Law and Professor of South Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin Law School
The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages – reduced to $160,000 because the jury found her 20 percent at fault – and $2.7 million in punitive damages for McDonald’s indifference. The trial judge subsequently reduced the punitive damages to $480,000 and refused to grant a new trial in the case, calling McDonald’s behavior “callous.” The parties ultimately settled for an undisclosed amount.
Professors Michael McCann and William Haltom “found in a study that the large McDonald's verdict got extensive front-page coverage in 1994. But only about half the newspapers carried articles when the judge later reduced the punitive damages to $480,000.”11
1 Marc Galanter, “Real World Torts: An Antidote to Anecdote,” 55 Md. L. Rev. 1093 (1996).
2 William Haltom and Michael McCann, Distorting the Law; Politics, Media and the Litigation Crisis, University of Chicago Press, 2004.
4 Howard Kurtz, “A Little Snag in Those Frivolous Suits; U.S. News's Examples Were 'Myths',” Washington Post, June 23, 2003.
5 Stephanie Mencimer, “False Alarm; How the media helps the insurance industry and the GOP promote the myth of America's "lawsuit crisis," The Washington Monthly, October 2004 http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2004/0410.mencimer.html.
6 House Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs, July 23, 1986. Ronald Reagan described the Bigbee case in a 1986 speech as follows: “In California, a man was using a public telephone booth to place a call. An alleged drunk driver careened down the street, lost control of his car, and crashed into a phone booth. Now, it’s no surprise that the injured man sued. But you might be startled to hear whom he sued: the telephone company and associated firms!” In fact, Bigbee’s leg was severed after a car hit the phone booth in which he had been trapped. The door jammed after he saw the car coming – he tried to flee but could not. The accident left him unable to walk, severely depressed and unable to work. Because the phone company had placed the booth near a known hazardous intersection, and because the door was defective, keeping him trapped inside, he sued the phone company for compensation. After hearing his story repeatedly distorted, Bigbee was brought to Congress to testify in 1986 in an attempt to clear the record. Charles Bigbee died in 1994 at age 52. Ralph Nader, Wesley Smith, No Contest: Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America (1996).
8 William Glaberson, “The $2.9 Million Cup of Coffee; When the Verdict Is Just a Fantasy,” New York Times, June 6, 1999.
9 Myron Levin, “Legal Urban Legends Hold Sway; Tall tales of outrageous jury awards have helped bolster business-led campaigns to overhaul the civil justice system,” Los Angeles Times, August 14, 2005.
10 Based on an account by Liebeck’s attorney in The Recorder, September 30, 1994.
11 William Glaberson, “The $2.9 Million Cup of Coffee; When the Verdict Is Just a Fantasy” New York Time, June 6, 1999. See also, Myron Levin, “Coverage of Big Awards for Plaintiffs Helps Distort View of Legal System; In most such cases, the verdicts are either later rejected or the amounts are severely lowered,” Los Angeles Times, August 14, 2005.