Wake Up and Smell the Hot Coffee

How often have you heard someone joke about the woman who spilled coffee on herself at McDonald’s, sued the fast food giant, and won? She won a jury verdict of $2.9 million dollars (which was reduced and the case was ultimately settled), but most people don’t equate that large amount of money with the amount of pain she suffered or the level of recklessness McDonald’s tolerated. Instead, folks usually scoff, citing the case as the poster child for frivolous lawsuits. How many of us actually know the full story of what happened to Stella Liebeck?

Stella was a 79-year-old grandmother at the time of the incident, and she was riding in her grandson’s car. Her grandson had pulled over to the side of the road to allow Stella to add cream and sugar to her coffee. The car was not moving, as many tort-reform hawks would like the public to believe. When Stella pulled the lid off of the coffee cup, the exceedingly hot coffee spilled onto her lap and onto the seat beneath her. She was wearing cotton jogging pants. McDonald’s admitted that the coffee was served at a scalding 190 degrees—hot enough to cause third degree burns within 2-7 seconds (according to expert testimony). She did, in fact, suffer serious burns to her thighs, buttocks, and genitals. She was taken to the hospital, where doctors determined that she had suffered third-degree burns. She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent painful skin grafting. Thereafter, she had two years of treatment.

Although McDonald’s admitted that they knew the cup of coffee was exceedingly hot, they tried to cover up for their reckless conduct by claiming that they purposefully served the coffee at a high temperature because company research showed that customers want to drive a distance before drinking the coffee. However, their own research also indicated that some customers intended to drink the coffee immediately after purchase. So what was it? Well, the truth is that McDonald’s had known for over a decade that their coffee was burning people (over 700 claims, some including third degree burns) and yet did nothing about it.

The truth of the matter is, the civil justice system has been under attack for 25 years. Big businesses, such as the tobacco, pharmaceutical, and insurance companies, just to name a few, launched a public relations campaign beginning in the 80s to undermine the court system—the one place an average citizen can go and see some kind of justice. This mascarade goes by the name of tort reform. By convincing the American public that we have out-of-control juries, too many lawsuits, and a desperate need for tort reform, other big businesses can avoid responsibility for their poor behavior when it comes to the safety of the average consumer. But where will the little guy go when he gets “burned”—figuratively or literally, like Liebeck?

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