If you haven’t heard of the motorcycle rider who is suing BMW and Corbin seats for causing a lasting erection, then you have likely been living under a rock for the past few days. First reported by Courthouse News, the story has swept the pages of motorcycle blogs around the world, and has even garnered serious mainstream media attention. There is a reason this story is going viral, right? Our inner-child loves a good dick joke, and the setup on how a motorcycle has made a man erect virtually sells its comedic self. There is of course the “damn lawyers” angle as well, which makes for a nice one-two punch.
As you can imagine, the bulk of the commentary, both from readers and from professional journalists, has centered around the absurdity of the claim, with even jokes being offered about how an aged BMW rider should be thanking the German motorcycle brand for saving him money on Viagra, etc. The situation reminds me of the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit. You know the story, right?. A woman buys a cup of coffee at McDonald’s, spills it on herself while in the car, and sues the bastards for her incompetence. True to litigious American form, the unthinkable happened, and a jury awarded this gold-digging woman millions of dollars. It is repudiating, and it stands for everything that is wrong with the legal system, or so we would be lead to believe — especially by the media.
As I sat back this weekend and watched the comments flood in about the story, I realized that we the media (myself included) have done a huge disservice to the public at large — an act I thought I would never do. We offered up this story to mass consumption knowing full well the headline chasing/link-baiting were we about to commit. You see, I know a thing or two about the McDonald’s coffee case, and how that story was pitched by the media. Sitting in my first-year torts class in law school, our professor baited his trap and we walked right into it when he offered up the same premise as I have done above. How dare someone sue over some spilled coffee! How dare this man sue for an erection! Whether or not the seat caused it even!
The photo you see above is of Stella Liebeck, the 79-year-old grandmother who spilled 190°F coffee on herself while in a parked car, and suffered third-degree burns on her thighs, pelvic, groin, and genitalia. If that photo shocks and offends you, then I have made my unapologetic point. But what is truly shocking is the full-story behind Stella’s injuries and “frivolous” lawsuit. I have republished the account of her story after the jump, but hopefully it sheds a different light on the plight of our BMW rider, who claims to have had painful, uncomfortable, year-long lasting erections.
Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car when she was severely burned by McDonalds’ coffee in February 1992. Liebeck, 79 at the time, ordered coffee that was served in a styrofoam cup at the drivethrough window of a local McDonalds.
After receiving the order, the grandson pulled his car forward and stopped momentarily so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. (Critics of civil justice, who have pounced on this case, often charge that Liebeck was driving the car or that the vehicle was in motion when she spilled the coffee; neither is true.) Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup. As she removed the lid, the entire contents of the cup spilled into her lap.
The sweatpants Liebeck was wearing absorbed the coffee and held it next to her skin. A vascular surgeon determined that Liebeck suffered full thickness burns (or third-degree burns) over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting. Liebeck, who also underwent debridement treatments, sought to settle her claim for $20,000.
Her past medical expenses were $10,500, her anticipated future medical expenses were approximately $2,500, and her loss of income was approximately $5,000 for a total of approximately $18,000. Instead, McDonald’s offered only $800 to Liebeck. When McDonald’s refused to raise its offer, Liebeck retained Texas attorney Reed Morgan.
Morgan filed suit in New Mexico District Court accusing McDonald’s of “gross negligence” for selling coffee that was “unreasonably dangerous” and “defectively manufactured”. McDonald’s refused Morgan’s offer to settle for $90,000. Morgan offered to settle for $300,000, and a mediator suggested $225,000 just before trial, but McDonald’s also refused these final pre-trial attempts to settle.
During discovery, McDonalds produced documents showing more than 700 claims by people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some claims involved third-degree burns substantially similar to Liebeck’s. This history documented McDonalds’ knowledge about the extent and nature of this hazard.
McDonalds also said during discovery that, based on a consultant’s advice, it held its coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain optimum taste. He admitted that he had not evaluated the safety ramifications at this temperature. Other establishments sell coffee at substantially lower temperatures, and coffee served at home is generally 135 to 140 degrees.
Further, McDonalds’ quality assurance manager testified that the company actively enforces a requirement that coffee be held in the pot at 185 degrees, plus or minus five degrees. He also testified that a burn hazard exists with any food substance served at 140 degrees or above, and that McDonalds coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into styrofoam cups, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat. The quality assurance manager admitted that burns would occur, but testified that McDonalds had no intention of reducing the “holding temperature” of its coffee.
Plaintiffs’ expert, a scholar in thermodynamics applied to human skin burns, testified that liquids, at 180 degrees, will cause a full thickness burn to human skin in two to seven seconds. Other testimony showed that as the temperature decreases toward 155 degrees, the extent of the burn relative to that temperature decreases exponentially. Thus, if Liebeck’s spill had involved coffee at 155 degrees, the liquid would have cooled and given her time to avoid a serious burn.
McDonalds asserted that customers buy coffee on their way to work or home, intending to consume it there. However, the companys own research showed that customers intend to consume the coffee immediately while driving.
McDonalds also argued that consumers know coffee is hot and that its customers want it that way. The company admitted its customers were unaware that they could suffer thirddegree burns from the coffee and that a statement on the side of the cup was not a “warning” but a “reminder” since the location of the writing would not warn customers of the hazard.
The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. This amount was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Liebeck 20 percent at fault in the spill. The jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which equals about two days of McDonalds’ coffee sales. The trial court subsequently reduced the punitive award to $480,000 — or three times compensatory damages — even though the judge called McDonalds’ conduct reckless, callous and willful.
A post-verdict investigation found that the temperature of coffee at the local Albuquerque McDonalds had dropped to 158 degrees fahrenheit.