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Millions for spilling hot coffee?--A new book explains.

NEWARK, DE.--When a jury awarded Stella Liebeck $3 million for spilling McDonald’s coffee in her lap, people across the continent were sure the jury system was out of control.

But, a new book by sociologist Valerie P. Hans explains that jurors made the award because "the facts were so overwhelmingly against the company" and because the company showed "a callous disregard for the safety of people."

In "Business on Trial: The Civil Jury and Corporate Responsibility," Hans, nationally recognized expert on jury behavior and author of "Judging the Jury," offers a decade of research, interviews with civil jurors, experiments with mock juries and public opinion polls that debunk the notion that jurors enter a courtroom biased against corporations.

In fact, her research offers hard evidence to the contrary.

In case after case where corporations were made to pay millions to individuals, the University of Delaware professor could find no indication that the "Robin Hood" or "deep pockets" theories—that juries make large awards to individuals because corporations can afford to pay—are real. Instead, she found that jurors were swayed by corporate disregard for the welfare of their customers.

During the McDonald’s trial, the jury heard testimony that there had been more than 700 complaints by people burned by the coffee and many had been settled by McDonalds for large sums of money. Still, executives testified they would not change their policies.

Hans dissects jury decisions in lawsuits decided for and against the corporation. She contrasts media coverage of trials and with what actually happened in the courtroom, compares the perception that the public is "sue crazy" with litigation statistics and compares the myths with the realities of juries in civil cases.

What she learned is that if there is a bias, it’s for the corporation and against the individual. But, that while juries are more likely to be suspicious of the injured person, they do expect corporations to live up to a higher standard of behavior. Hans finds that jurors are not hesitant about punishing a business when the evidence shows that they blatantly disregarded that standard or knowingly harmed their customers.

"Business on Trial" was published by Yale University Press in September.

Contact: Barbara Garrison: 302-831-1964 garrison@udel.edu

Oct. 13, 2000