I am sure everyone has heard of the infamous 1994 products liability lawsuit won by the lady who was burned after spilling a cup of hot McDonald’s coffee in her lap. From the date it was decided, the case has been used by big business as the poster case for frivolous lawsuits. However, I would be willing to bet that few people truly know what really happened or have seen the horrific 3rd degree burns caused by the coffee. I know, coffee is hot, so what makes this a valid lawsuit and why should you bother to understand the civil justice system? frivolous
The case in question is Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurant. Ms. Stella Liebeck was the passenger in an automobile being driven by her grandson, when the pair stopped at McDonald’s for breakfast and coffee. After being handed their purchase, Ms. Liebeck and her son pulled over into a parking spot to prepare for their drive. While pulled over, Ms. Liebeck had her coffee situated in her lap attempting to remove the lid, when the defective lid popped and the coffee split directly onto her legs and through her lap.
The coffee instantly caused third degree burns to over 6% of Ms. Liebeck’s skin. Burns of various other degrees were recorded on a total of 16% of her skin. Her injuries required an 8 day hospital stay and extensive skin grafts. While undergoing her procedures, 79 year old Lieback lost 83 pounds. After undergoing such trauma and mounting medical bills, Ms. Lieback requested that McDonald’s fix their lid first and foremost. Second, she requested reimbursement for the difference between what medicare paid and her outstanding medical bills of $10,500. Her request was denied by McDonald’s who offered her $500 to go away. Ms. Liebeck was unwilling to accept the $500 offer and a lawsuit was then filed.
Throughout the course of litigation it was discovered that McDonald’s was aware that within 3 seconds of the coffee touching a person’s skin, 3 degree burns would result. In a deposition of the McDonald’s corporate representative, McDonald’s stated that they were aware of more than 700 burn cases caused due to the extremely high holding temperature of the their coffee. In a callous manner, McDonald’s stated they were lucky that the number of burn victims was not much higher. In the documentary movie “Hot Coffee” by Susan Saladoff, one juror was particularly bothered by how McDonald’s stated they were lucky there were not more burn victims. The juror stated it should bother McDonald’s if one person was burnt as a result of a fixable problem. McDonald’s held their ground and 12 individuals were then asked to determine if McDonald’s was responsible for Ms. Liebeck’s injuries and for how much?
After viewing Ms. Liebeck’s injury, the jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. This means that the jury believed Ms. Liebeck’s injury and suffering (compensatory damages) was worth $160,000. The jury then was asked to determine whether McDonald’s was guilty of any conduct for which McDonald’s should be punished. The jury found that it was necessary to send a message to the community that the conduct of McDonald’s was not acceptable. For this intentional conduct the jury awarded punitive damages in the amount of $2.7 million dollars. The case was instantly appealed. Prior to the appeal being determined, the parties settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
One of the conditions of the confidential settlement was that Ms. Liebeck be placed under a gag order which prevented her from discussing her case in any manner with the public. However, McDonald’s had no such order. McDonald’s was free to perpetuate the rumors that Ms. Liebeck’s case was frivolous and without merit. The remainder of the nation jumped on board and cited the case as the number one reason frivolous lawsuits were a danger to the United States. Most American’s remain uneducated about the facts of Ms. Liebeck’s case and her extreme burns.
The documentary film Hot Coffee by Susan Saladoff does an amazing job outlining why it is important for the average citizen in the United States to understand the truth behind this seemingly outrageous case. The reason is simple: Ms. Liebeck was injured as the result of the negligence of McDonald’s and the case was valid. There coffee was kept way to hot and they knew they had a defective lid but profits prevailed over safety measures. 12 individual jurors agreed and awarded Ms. Liebeck substantial reimbursement for her injuries. However, due to the gag order, Ms. Liebeck was unable to combat the claims that the case was frivolous and without merit. However, the case is currently being used to restrict access to the courts by the average citizen.
The 7th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which is a part of the Bill of Rights, provides citizens the right to a jury trial when someone is civilly harmed by another. As a United States citizen, we all have the right to a level playing field and the ability to hold wrongdoers accountable in our courts. The beauty of our system is that the average person has the ability to present their case side by side with large corporations. However, laws are being passed daily which restrict an injured party’s right to a trial by jury under the guise of the need to restrict frivolous lawsuits. The harm is that the average citizen is fed misinformation regarding how their court system is actually being used. Citizens then lose faith in the system and laws are then passed to remedy harms that do not exist. These new laws prevent the average citizen from access to the courts and the ability to hold large companies responsible for putting profits ahead of safety.
I highly recommend that each and every individual who doubts the truth of this post, go to Ms. Saladoff’s website and purchase the documentary movie “Hot Coffee”. “Hot Coffee” outlines the McDonald’s case in detail and also looks at several other cases in which citizens are denied the right to a jury trial through underhanded mechanisms such as forced binging arbitration and damage caps. The movie is eye opening and a must see. The time has come for the average citizen to understand the role of personal injury lawyers and the civil justice system. Unfortunately, most individuals do not wish to undertake this effort until they are injured and it is too late.