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Mentioning McDonald’s Coffee Case Biased Jury

(CN) - A lawyer giving final arguments in a truck-collision trial should not have invoked the massive jury award against McDonald's over a spilled cup of coffee, the Utah Supreme Court ruled.

John Boyle underwent back surgery after a truck hit him in the crosswalk of a grocery story parking lot. The former professional golfer lost his job at a golf shop and says he is still unable to pick up two buckets of golf balls at a time.

Kerry Christensen, the driver, admitted liability, but the case went to trial for damages. In closing arguments, Christiansen's lawyer said: "Ladies and gentlemen, they want a lot of money for this. A lot of money. ... 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 the cup of coffee."

Boyle's attorney objected, but the judge overruled it. On appeal, he said the cultural reference unduly prejudiced the jury, which subsequently awarded him $62,500 - far short of the $458,724 he sought for pain and suffering.

In the 1994 Liebeck v. McDonald's case, a jury awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages to a woman who was scalded by hot coffee.

On April 15, the Utah Supreme Court found that the statement should not have been allowed, reversing the ruling of a Utah Court of Appeals, which upheld the damages award.

"We reverse and remand for a new trial because under the circumstances, the reference had a reasonable likelihood of influencing the jury verdict to Mr. Boyle's detriment," Chief Justice Christine Durham wrote on behalf of the court, noting that a new trial is an "extreme remedy."

"Absent the improper reference to the McDonald's coffee case, there was a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable outcome for Mr. Boyle," Durham wrote.

The court also ruled that the trial court's dismissal of the loss of consortium claim of Boyle's wife, Norrine, was also incorrect.

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