Celebrate Law Day 2016 with Three Famous (and Misunderstood) Cases

April 21, 2016 by

Sunday, May 1 is Law Day

Maybe you’ve never heard of Law Day in the U.S. – even though the President has issued a Law Day proclamation every year since 1958 on May 1 to celebrate this holiday celebrating our legal heritage and the rule of law.

While many law schools and bar associations celebrate Law Day with seminars and educational activities for the community, you may want to get in the spirit by learning about some famous legal cases that live on in popular culture, although our collective memories may not mesh with what really happened.

In honor of Law Day, here are three famous cases that many people remember vividly—and incorrectly.

Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, 1994 

“A woman once sued McDonald’s because she burned herself on a cup of hot coffee—even though everyone knows coffee is supposed to be served hot.”

What really happened: In 1992, 79-year-old New Mexico resident Stella Liebeck ordered a cup of hot coffee from the drive-through window of a local McDonald’s and spilled the coffee in her lap moments later while trying to add cream and sugar. The scalding hot cup of coffee burned Liebeck’s skin so badly that she suffered third-degree burns and spent eight days in the hospital receiving skin grafts and recovering from her injuries.

Liebeck later sued McDonald’s over the incident, and her attorneys discovered during the case that McDonald’s had been deliberately serving their coffee at dangerously hot temperatures (up to 190 degrees F) in order to please commuters who had to drive some distance before drinking their beverage.
More importantly, Liebeck’s attorneys obtained documents from McDonald’s that revealed that their coffee had burned more than 700 people, and that the fast food behemoth had already settled more than $500,000 in claims arising from coffee-related scalding injuries.

After hearing this evidence, the jury sided with Liebeck and awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages – a figure that the jury arrived at after Liebeck’s attorney suggested that they penalize McDonald’s for one or two days’ worth of the company’s coffee revenues, which totaled about $1.35 million per day.

The judge, however, reduced punitive damages to $480,000, for a total award of $640,000. Both sides then appealed the decision in December 1994 before settling out of court for an undisclosed amount.

The People v. Daniel James White, 1981 

The lawyers for a man charged with murder tried to defend him by saying that eating too many Twinkies made him do it.”

What really happened: In 1979, disgruntled former San Francisco city employee Dan White was charged with murder after he shot and killed city supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. During the trial, White’s attorneys argued that he was suffering from diminished capacity as a result of severe depression – alleging that White had recently abandoned a diet of mostly healthy food in favor of frequent junk food binges.

It’s important to note in this case that White’s attorneys never suggested that eating junk food prompted his actions; instead, they tried to show that his junk food consumption was evidence of his depression. The attorneys also pointed to White’s recent neglect of his appearance, loss of his job, and failing relationship with his wife as further evidence of his condition.

Several media outlets, however, published inaccurate reports of the defense arguments and claimed that White’s attorneys had presented junk food as the cause of his depression. Although Twinkies were never actually brought up during the trial, one local columnist made reference to White’s “Twinkie insanity defense” and the term spread to other news reports.

In rendering a verdict, the jury agreed that White’s depression rendered him incapable of the level of premeditation required for a murder conviction; instead, they found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter.

Bigbee v. Pacific Phone and Telegraph, 1983 

President Ronald Reagan himself is the source of the third case. In a 1987 speech, he told the following tale as an example of frivolous litigation: “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.”

What really happened: The victim in this case was Charles Bigbee, a Los Angeles custodian who lost his leg when a drunk driver crashed into the phone booth he was using. What’s missing from the popular account is the fact that Bigbee actually saw the car coming and tried to get out of the phone booth. He became trapped, however, when the booth’s door jammed. A witness at the scene corroborated Bigbee’s account, testifying that he saw Bigbee frantically trying to open the booth’s door as the vehicle approached.

While investigating the case, Bigbee’s attorney discovered that 20 months prior to Bigbee’s accident, another car had hit the same phone booth at the same location, which was near a busy intersection with a history of vehicle collisions. The phone company decided to build another booth in the exact same spot, with no guardrail or barrier, no warning signs, and with a door that did not work properly, despite indications that the booth was in a dangerous location.

The trial judge dismissed the case, but the California Supreme Court later ruled that a jury should hear Bigbee’s case. Eventually, Bigbee and the telephone company settled the case for an undisclosed amount.

Call Hossley & Embry If You’ve Been Injured

If you or a loved one has suffered a personal injury, please call Hossley & Embry at (866) 522-9265 or send us an email at newcase@hossleyembry.com. You can also fill out our convenient online contact form and we will be in touch promptly. We offer free consultations, and we have the resources available (including charter aircraft) to travel throughout Texas and the United States on short notice to investigate your potential claim.


FAQ about the McDonald’s coffee case. (n.d.). Hot coffee: A documentary feature film by Susan Saladoff. Retrieved from http://www.hotcoffeethemovie.com/default.asp?pg=mcdonalds_case

Pogash, C. (2003, November 23). Myth of the ‘Twinkie defense’: The verdict in the Dan White case wasn’t based on his ingestion of junk food. Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/health/article/Myth-of-the-Twinkie-defense-The-verdict-in-2511152.php

Kwon, R. (n.d.). Bigbee v. Pacific Telephone and Telegraph: Cramming politics into a phone booth. UC Berkeley School of Law. Retrieved from https://www.law.berkeley.edu/sugarman/Bigbee_42306_web_version.pdf

Categories: Legal History