We all remember the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case – as some national news anchors reported it, a woman had ordered a cup of coffee at the drive through, lodged it between her legs and drove through town, spilling the drink on her lap in the process. Angry over the incident, she sued the McDonald’s corporation and received over two million dollars.
It is a case that enraged many. The tale of a greedy woman misusing our court system to bilk millions from the system became a clarion call against frivolous lawsuits.
Except that the lawsuit was far from frivolous: Ms. Stella Liebeck, 79, was sitting in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car in the McDonald’s parking lot; the car had come to a full halt, and, because the interior of the car had no flat surfaces – this was before built-in cup-holders became a standard feature – she braced the cup between her legs in order to remove the lid. The spilled hot coffee soaked into her garments, causing third-degree burns, sending her into shock and nearly killing her, disfiguring her permanently.
This was not the first injury via hot coffee McDonald’s had been made aware of – for ten years, from 1982 to ’92, over 700 men, women, children and even infants had been burned by hot coffee at McDonald’s; moreover, the Shriners’ Burn Institute had previously issued a published warning to the fast-food injury that serving liquids at temperatures above 130 degrees Fahrenheit was unnecessary and dangerous. Nonetheless, McDonald’s expressed no plans to change their policy at the time of the lawsuit, even though it had admitted that coffee served at 180-190 degrees was “not fit for consumption,” and would inevitably scald if spilled or drunk at that temperature.
The jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $160,000, and added 2.7 million dollars in punitive damages – roughly two days’ worth of the corporation’s income from just coffee sales. However, these figures were not what the plaintiff received; ultimately, she and McDonald’s arrived at a post-court settlement which was undisclosed, but believed to be just under $500,000 – enough to compensate for her medical and court expenses, but certainly not enough to compensate for the emotional aftermath of the case. Ms. Liebeck testified that all she ever wanted was for the restaurant chain to turn the temperature of the hot coffee down so that others would not be injured; in this, she succeeded – today it would be rare to find any drive-through serving hot coffee at or above 185 degrees; the average McDonald’s coffee is 165 degrees, only slightly higher than most home brewing devices.
Ms. Liebeck should have been hailed as a hero: a working-class woman, standing up to a corporation and holding them accountable for their unsafe policies, and changing those policies for the public good. However, as the story was repeated across the wire services – and the copy shortened to fit the national and international news – important details, such as the scalding temperature of the coffee, the severity of Ms. Liebeck’s burns and her repeated attempts to settle out of court for far more modest sums, were lost on the cutting-room floor. The emerging alternative narrative, of a money-grubbing woman misusing the court system to steal from the honest family company, was far from accurate – and much more useful to corporate lawyers intent on discouraging others from coming forward with similar cases.
Stella Liebeck became a despised pariah, receiving mail-bags full of poison pen letters, wishing her misfortune and pain. Forbidden by the settlement to speak on her own behalf, she and her beleaguered family could only stand silently by as she became a punchline in a Jay Leno monologue, a throwaway gag in sitcoms like Seinfeld and Futurama, and even a lyric in a popular country western song: “Plasma getting bigger/ Jesus getting smaller/ Spill a cup of coffee/ Win a million dollars”. The kneejerk reaction of outrage assured that the nation accepted the false news pouring forth from the media, demonizing a woman who had dared to sue a national icon. Emotions, running high, obscured the true facts.
Grassroots organizations of concerned citizens organized protests against frivolous lawsuits – except that the “concerned citizens” were, in fact, paid representatives of such large corporations as Pfizer, Texaco, and Philip Morris Tobacco: these multinational firms, under the name Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, continue to sponsor and stage protests to highlight the issue of frivolous lawsuits – an issue which, according to such experts as William Haltom and Michael McCann, in their book Distorting the Law: Politics, Media, and the Litigation Crisis, is vastly exaggerated in scope by these groups: in fact, such “personal injury” lawsuits are on a decline, and, instead of garnering millions for an injury, a plaintiff receives on average $55,000 – barely enough to cover the medical bills, let alone lawyers’ fees.
For Stella Liebeck, her legal fight might have been successful, but the conseqences were far from happy: for the rest of her life, she had to withstand endless abuse from misinformed people who, due to fake news, could not – and would not – see the case for what it really was. “My mother was made the villain… it feels like bullying,” her daughter recalled in a recent interview. “The emotion she went through – she felt like people were coming at her.”
Ms. Liebeck died in 2004, at the age of 92.
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