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Part 2 of 3: Hot Coffee, and Understanding and Overcoming Tort Reform Claims

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This is part two of a three-part series exploring tort reform. The first part of the series was published
on December 19, 2017, and can be viewed here.

Even Jerry Seinfeld was making jokes about it. Craig Ferguson. “Weird Al” Yankovic wrote a song
called, I’ll Sue Ya. Television commercials were vying for attention with an older gentleman staring
straight into the camera jokingly saying, “I’ve been thinking of quitting my work here and suing big
companies for a living instead. Suing has become a popular American pastime and I’d like to get in on
that easy money.”

The media was cashing in on a situation they thought they had all understood.

You likely remember the case they were all referring to The 1994 product liability lawsuit between Stella Liebeck and McDonald’s (Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants). This case became known as “the hot coffee lawsuit,” which consequently started a national conversation – and sparked a heated debate – on the topic of tort reform.

In 1992, when Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman in New Mexico, ordered a coffee with her Value Meal, she never expected to land herself in the middle of a controversy.

The 2011 documentary Hot Coffee, directed by Susan Saladoff, explores “the hot coffee lawsuit” more closely. Saladoff herself interviews passersby on the National Mall and around D.C. about how they remember the refuted “hot coffee court case.” Everyone has their own opinions. Everyone – it seems – knew the whole story.

Didn’t she spill that coffee on herself? Hadn’t she been looking for a way to make some money? Well, she shouldn’t have been driving. She spilled it on herself on purpose. She was after McDonalds. People are greedy, and they’ll do anything they can to get it.

…but do these individuals really know the whole story?

Saladoff offers these same individuals photographs of Liebeck’s burns. Her groin. Her inner thigh. Burned so severely multiple layers of skin are missing.

The same people that previously had seen so sure of themselves and their recollection of the case are suddenly squeamish and misbegotten.

“Yes,” one man named Jeremy says, “if I saw injuries like that, I’d definitely take a different view of it.”

Over the years, Judy Allen, Stella Liebeck’s daughter, continued to struggle with the public’s assumption of the court case and her mother’s own experience. She says, “I am just astounded at how many people are aware of this case and how many people have a distorted view of the case.”

The Facts

Stella Liebeck wasn’t driving. She was seated in the passenger seat. Her nephew, Christopher Tiano, was in the driver’s seat. The two pulled up through the McDonald’s Drive-Thru and ordered. Liebeck ordered coffee with her Value Meal. The car was parked in the McDonald’s parking lot. Christopher handed his aunt the coffee. She wanted to get the top off to put her cream and sugar in it, so she steadied the coffee between her legs. That’s when the coffee spilled onto her lap.

Liebeck never intended to become a punch line in a comedian’s joke. Nor did she want to be in the spotlight of the American media. Her hospital stays, skin graft surgeries, and physical therapy appointments left her in excruciating pain and contributed to astronomical medical expenses. Doctors, Liebeck’s children recall, weren’t sure that Liebeck would even survive.

Liebeck wanted McDonald’s to cover the medical expenses that Medicare wouldn’t cover. It seems only fair, right?

Liebeck’s family reached out to McDonald’s for help with which was a $10,000 medical bill at that time. They also requested the franchise inspect their coffee machine to see if the temperature was for some reason not calibrated correctly. McDonald’s offered a mere $800 and that was it.

Holding companies and corporations accountable is at the heart of the judicial law.

“When you are hurt by somebody or harmed in some way,” Joanne Doroshow, executive director at the Center for Justice and Democracy details, “and the person or the company that harms you is negligent or does this intentionally, you have a right to hold that wrongdoer accountable.”

The coffee in question was brewed at temperatures that would approximate the temperature in your car radiator after your drive from your home to your office. In the franchise directives and manuals for McDonald’s, the holding temperature should be 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit.

Dr. David Arrendondo, Liebeck’s surgeon, states, “If a liquid like coffee or water is in the range of 180 degrees or hotter, if it comes into contact with your skin for more than a few seconds, it will produce very serious burns, from first degree, second degree or full-thickness burns which require skin grafting and surgery.”

Even more upsetting, the trial revealed that Liebeck’s burn and the personal incident wasn’t an isolated event. McDonald’s had received over 700 complaints from individuals that were burned from hot beverages. Stomachs. Throats. Legs. Laps. Fingers. Ankles. Thighs. Chests. All burned. Yet, McDonald’s never took any action.

The jury took into consideration how much of the fault rested on Liebeck herself and how much blame McDonald’s needed to assume. They assigned 20 percent fault to Liebeck and 80 percent blame to McDonald’s.

The jury awarded Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages.

Note: Punitive damages are very rare and have a specific purpose to change the behavior of the wrongdoer, in this case, McDonald’s.

The judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, but in the end, Liebeck and McDonald’s settled on a confidential amount.

Why Hot Coffee Matters

This right – to bring a civil case to court – makes up our civil justice system, which stems from a fundamental right inherent in the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Those in favor of tort reform are hoping to shrink the margin by which individuals have the power to exercise this right.

Stella Liebeck went to court for a reason.

She said, “I want you to cover what Medicare doesn’t cover, and I want you to get a better lid on this coffee so this doesn’t happen to another person.”

Those who believe that courts are plugged full of and plagued by individuals who are seeking a payout are missing a big part – and the point – of the story.

If there are no penalties brought to big businesses when they are negligent in their behavior, then companies and corporations will continue to move forward in a way that ignores the consumer –  specifically in this case consumer safety – left only to focus on the bottom line of big business profits.

Big business, in that regard, becomes a poor regulator of itself.

To help hold the companies operating within the consumer marketplace accountable, keeping rights open, available and accessible for individuals and consumers to bring civil cases to court is crucial. An individual being able to bring a company or corporation to court fosters a conversation on a slightly more equal playing field.

In the end, it’s not just about one person, one case or one verdict. Justice belongs to everyone.

George Lakoff, Professor of Neurolinguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, says it best at the end of the documentary:

“Going to court to sue is not a simple procedure. You have to go through a lot of trouble to do it. Going to court to gain justice is heroic. That idea has to be out there. That when you ‘win a case,’ you win it for other people as well as gaining justice for yourself.”

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