Part IX: The Past, Present and Future

The “Hot Coffee Lady” and “Frivolous” Lawsuits

Everyone knows the story of Stella Liebeck and her cup of McDonald’s coffee that was too hot. It’s been repeated over and over and used as an example of the “frivolous lawsuit.”

People look at Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants and hold it up as an example that society has become too “sue-happy” because, of course, she should have known coffee is a hot beverage. Of course it had to be a cash-grab, and she was looking to squeeze a large corporation and make that payday we all dream of.

Well, hold on for one second. There’s more to the story. As it turns out, Ms. Liebeck spilled the coffee on her lap, which caused third degree burns over most of her legs and groin. She required a number of painful skin graft surgeries, and was disabled for a period of time.

The other part that tends to be left out of the anecdotal retellings of the story is the part where McDonald’s served her coffee they knew was dangerously hot because they had been told repeatedly to stop serving coffee at near-boiling temperatures.

Not only that, but Ms. Leibeck was not the first person to be severely burned by McDonald’s coffee. In fact, there were 700 reports of serious burns related to their coffee prior to hers. What about that part where Ms.Liebeck “sued for millions of dollars?” Also not entirely accurate.

Ms. Liebeck initially asked McDonald’s for $20,000 to cover her medical bills and lost wages. McDonald’s offered her $800. After retaining a lawyer, Ms. Liebeck offered a settlement of $90,000, no questions asked, end of story. McDonald’s also refused that and another settlement of $250,000 was offered at a settlement conference.

McDonald’s had already settled other scalding claims for upwards of $500,000.

When the case went to trial, Ms. Liebeck was again seeking nothing more than compensation for her medical bills. It was the jury who awarded her $200,000 in actual damages and added the $2.7 million in punitive damages. This was because the jury felt McDonald’s had prior warnings and knew exactly of the dangers and harm their coffee would cause if it were to spill. It was the jury who, after hearing all the evidence, believed that this would be ample punishment. A judge later reduced the punitive damages to $480,000. After appeals, the two parties settled on $600,000.

Ms. Liebeck just wanted her medical bills paid. It was the jury that held McDonald’s accountable for their actions by setting the high actual and punitive damage amount.

The public’s perception of the Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants case was skewed because most people didn’t have the whole story. When presented with the full scope of the case, most people’s opinions change drastically. This was more than “my coffee is too hot, I think I’ll sue.” Her case centered around the negligence of serving coffee too hot after being told repeatedly not to because people were getting hurt. In lawyer speak, this is called “being on notice.”

In the wake of Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, a moral outrage over “frivolous lawsuits” has erupted, causing many injured parties to be hesitant to sue, despite being seriously injured. This campaign is spearheaded and financed by billiondollar insurance companies and corporations who want nothing other than to keep consumers from having a way to check their power.

There’s nothing wrong with holding a responsible party liable when you are injured due to their negligence. Thinking your lawsuit is “frivolous” just because of something you heard on TV could force you to deal with a life-altering injury on your own when you don’t have to.

In the future, the effects of Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants could continue to skew people’s perception of personal injury cases. When you’re hurt and you’re seeking compensation for expenses you incurred because of someone else’s negligence, and someone who has no knowledge of your case accuses you of “looking for a fast payday,” you might get discouraged.

It’s important to remember the Liebeck case because it reminds us that detractors don’t usually know the full story. Hopefully, in the future we will see more people looking to understand the entire story, rather than just a soundbite.