What Does A Cup Of McDonald’s Coffee Cost? How About A New Trial?
As reported in The Salt Lake Tribune, last month the Utah Supreme Court said that mentioning the infamous “McDonald’s coffee case” was enough to taint a jury and warrant a new trial.
The unanimous opinion in the case, Boyle v. Christensen, 2011 UT 20, was handed down on April 15, 2011. The case itself involved an automobile-pedestrian accident. The defendant admitted liability, and the case proceeded solely on damages. The plaintiff, Mr. Boyle, was not satisfied with the jury award of $62,500.00, and appealed the decision. The Utah Court of Appeals affirmed the decision. Mr. Boyle brought three issues before the Utah Supreme Court:
1. The district court provided inadequate voir dire questioning.
2. Defendant’s counsel made improper reference to the “McDonald’s coffee case” (Liebeck v. McDonald’s Rests., P.T.S., Inc., 1995 WL 360309 (N.M. Dist. Ct. 1994) in closing arguments.
3. Mrs. Boyle’s related loss of consortium claim was improperly dismissed.
The Utah Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeal’s decision regarding the voir dire issue, but found in favor of the Boyles on both the reference to the Liebeck case and Mrs. Boyle’s lack of consortium claim.
During the jury selection process, both parties submitted voir dire questions to the court. The judge combined and revised the questions. In particular, the judge omitted some of Mr. Boyle’s questions that addressed potential jurors’ opinions on tort reform issues.
The Utah Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals was correct in rejecting Mr. Boyle’s argument. Mr. Boyle’s attorneys never objected to the trial judge’s revised voir dire questions. Nor did they seek additional questioning, even when presented with the opportunity to do so, thus failing to preserve the issue for appeal.
Reference to Liebeck
The Utah Supreme Court went on to hold that counsel for Mr. Christensen improperly made reference to the Liebeck case. In her closing arguments, counsel made the following comments:
Ladies and gentlemen, they want a lot of money for this. A lot of money. What’s been written on the board is called a per diem analysis…. How many days has it been since the accident? How many days for the rest of his life? And how much per day is that worth? That’s what’s been done here. That’s how we get verdicts like in the McDonald’s case with a cup of coffee.
Mr. Boyle’s counsel immediately objected. The trial judge noted the objection, but did not overrule it. The Supreme Court held that this reference warranted the “extreme remedy” of granting the Boyles a new trial because it was both improper and reasonably likely to prejudice the jury.
The Reference Was Improper
· The reference improperly appealed to the jury’s passions.
· The facts and legal arguments from the McDonald’s case were not in evidence in Boyle, and were therefore “utterly irrelevant.”
· Defense counsel’s attempt to relate the McDonald’s case to Boyle was flawed, as the damages in the McDonald’s case were not based on a per diem analysis, as were the damages in Boyle.
There Was a Reasonable Likelihood of Prejudice
· The iconic nature of the McDonald’s case aroused public passion.
· The trial judge did not sustain the objection, thus allowing the jury to believe that it was proper to consider the McDonald’s case.
· The misrepresentation of the per diem analysis could have convinced the jury that the McDonald’s case and Boyle were similar when they were not.
· The size of the pain and suffering damages awarded by the jury could reasonably have been the product of entirely rejecting a per diem analysis in response to the McDonald’s coffee case comparison.
Loss of Consortium Claim
Finally, the Utah Supreme Court held that the district court erred when it dismissed Mrs. Boyle’s loss of consortium claim. The Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals also erred in affirming the district court, based on an erroneous interpretation of Utah Code Ann. § 30-2-11. This statute lists three examples of injuries leading to a loss of consortium claim. The Supreme Court held that this was a non-exhaustive list, noting that the statute uses the word “includes” instead of more limiting language such as “must include.” This created a question of fact regarding whether Mr. Boyle’s injuries “substantially” changed his lifestyle, and thus making Mrs. Boyle’s loss of consortium claim valid.
Neophyte Lawyer’s Thoughts:
Does the Boyle case mean that attorneys can never bring up the McDonald’s case? Perhaps Mr. Christensen’s attorney would have been on firmer footing if the two cases were more similar. By confusing the per diem analysis in Boyle with the award in the McDonald’s case, counsel gave the Supreme Court a basis for its decision.
In the final analysis, discussing the McDonald’s case in the first place seems a bit desperate. Distracting the jury with unrelated and irrelevant information designed solely to distract the jury from the facts of the case is a sign that your case is weak. Additionally, appealing to the jury’s passions instead of to their reason runs counter to the very purpose of the jury system. In this case, the Supreme Court made the right decision. At least that is my opinion. Your thoughts?