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VOL. 35 | NO. 26 | Friday, July 1, 2011

If you think McDonald’s coffee case is strange, you’re in for a caffeine rush

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A couple weeks back, I mentioned the film Hot Coffee, a documentary based on the infamous 1994 McDonald’s case.

You know, the case where Stella Lieback was awarded a judgment based on third-degree burns caused by coffee bought at a drive-through window.

The big judgment ($3.7 million in punitive damages) was reduced on appeal to less than half a million. The temperature of McDonald’s coffee was reduced by 10 degrees.

That case?

Well, now we have another coffee case that’s been brewing for the past couple years in the great Northwest, around the Washington-Idaho border.

One of the initial write-ups began: “A man who allegedly speeds down a country road, hits two pedestrians, gets arrested and then runs handcuffed toward his wife’s office in five-degree weather, all while wearing only pajamas and flip flops, might lead someone to think of alcohol.”

But, as the case would develop, it was not alcohol but caffeine that took the rap. Not booze, but coffee!

It seems that Daniel Noble, a 31-year-old financial consultant, went to his usual Starbucks in Moscow, Idaho, on the morning of Dec. 7, 2009, and ordered his usual, times two. That is, two grande lattes, each of which contained two shots of espresso.

News reports say he was clad only in his PJs.

Armed with his morning beverages, he then headed over the state line to Pullman, Wash., a distance of about 10 miles, to meet his wife on campus at Washington State University.

Police received reports that Noble was speeding and driving erratically on Route 270 into town. Then, it seems, Noble hit two pedestrians in two crosswalks over a two-block stretch. Each student suffered a broken leg.

Then, according to a Washington State Trooper, “he just stops, blocking the left lane, gets out of his car” and runs. University police subdued the 300-pound Nobel with a Taser.

Charged with hit-and-run, resisting arrest and vehicular assault, the defendant pled temporary insanity, citing his overly developed caffeine habit.

His wife was quoted as saying that he “chugs significant energy drinks and copious amounts of coffee.”

His lawyer was quoted as saying that he “drinks approximately two pots a day and the equivalent of three or four energy drinks.”

For a thorough analysis of caffeine-related defenses in criminal cases, see the June 2011 issue of the American Bar Association Journal, in which Wendy Davis discusses this and other cases. Her article on page 16 is titled Killer Buzz.

In a non-jury trial last May, a Whitman County, Wash., Judge sustained the temporary insanity defense, acquitting Noble in the incident. This prompted one commentator to write “the victims did not get justice in this case.”

UCLA law professor Peter Arenella has been quoted as saying that the defense of temporary insanity “is not supposed to be one that’s easily raised in the courtroom,” adding that the notion that caffeine can trigger a mental illness is “junk science.”

“It never ceases to amaze me what trial judges are capable of doing in this area.”

Uh, right, professor. It’s all the judge’s fault. And what was the evidence in the case exactly?

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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