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The Utah Supreme Court watches "Seinfeld," too.
In a unanimous opinion handed down last week, the state's high court said a defense attorney's reference to the much-discussed, often-mocked "McDonald's coffee case" was enough to taint a jury and warrant a new trial in a Utah personal injury case.
In 2004, John and Norrine Boyle were hit by a truck while in a crosswalk at a grocery store parking lot. John Boyle, a one-time professional golfer, suffered back injuries that prevented him from lifting two buckets of balls at the same time, according to court filings.
But in closing arguments, a defense attorney likened the calculations used for damages to those of the 1994 lawsuit in which a jury awarded $2.7 million to a woman who was badly burned when she spilled a cup of hot coffee on herself.
"Ladies and gentlemen, they want a lot of money for this," the attorney said. "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."
The Boyles' attorney objected to the remark, but a judge allowed it. The couple had been seeking $458,000 in damages but were awarded $62,500.
In the opinion written by Chief Justice Christine Durham, the Utah Supreme Court focused on the "cultural context" of the McDonald's lawsuit, pointing out that it had been mocked on late-night shows and parodied on "Seinfeld," but was generally misunderstood by the public.
"In U.S. popular culture, the case has come to symbolize greedy plaintiffs and lawyers who file frivolous lawsuits and win hugely excessive sums in a broken legal system," the court wrote.
The court called ordering a new trial an "extreme remedy," but said there would have been a "reasonable likelihood of a more favorable verdict" for the Boyles had the comment not been made.