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Why Stella Liebeck is important

The blogosphere continues to discuss the 1994 Stella Liebeck McDonald's coffee case. Overlawyered's August 3 entry has prompted a couple of responses, prompting an August 4 entry. "Beldar" (Aug. 3) is reminded of similarly frivolous cases he defended against on behalf of the old Houston Lighting & Power, and provides an entertaining recounting of a typical such case. Beldar suggests Liebeck is an aberration; similarly, "PG" of Blog de Novo (Aug. 3) wonders why Liebeck is used to attack trial lawyers, rather than, say, the jurors or plaintiff. (PG omits the judge who let this case get to a jury; as McMahon v. Bunn-O-Matic shows, that was hardly inevitable.)

It would be one thing if Liebeck were just an aberration. Unfortunately, ATLA doesn't put forward the colorable proposition "Stella Liebeck was the beneficiary of a runaway jury and judge, and should not be considered typical of the tort system or more than anecdotal evidence for reform." Rather, ATLA tells the public that not only did Stella Liebeck recover, but she should have recovered, and that anyone who says otherwise is part of a conspiracy to deprive people of their rights.

So, yes, let's criticize the jurors who let emotion prevail over reason and common sense, let's criticize the plaintiff who sought to take money from McDonald's to compensate her for her own carelessness, and let's criticize the judge who didn't put a stop to this nonsense before it got to trial. But let's not forget that the most powerful lobby in America wants to make cases like Liebeck a regular state of affairs--and that that problem is a far bigger problem than the aberrant plaintiff, jurors, or judge.

One will note that noone screamed bogeyman tales about the fact that Bill Clinton was a lawyer, or that Hillary Clinton or Joe Lieberman or John Ashcroft are lawyers, or even that John Kerry is a lawyer. John Edwards isn't the subject of criticism because he's a lawyer. John Edwards is the subject of criticism because he's the personification of a lobby of a subset of lawyers that have sucked billions out of the American economy and are actively seeking to do more damage. It's not that tort reformers are worried that John Edwards is unduly influenced by the millions of dollars he's received from the plaintiffs' bar; it's that the plaintiffs' bar has given Edwards millions of dollars because they, like us, know that John Edwards is a true believer and, in a Kerry administration, will have a great deal of influence in seeking to appoint judges who find Liebeck and its like an admirable precedent.

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.