In 1992, 79-year old Stella Liebeck became the poster child for frivolous litigation after filing a lawsuit against McDonald’s for serving coffee that was too hot.
The public generally ridiculed Liebeck – the media hook was the story of an Albuquerque woman who cleaned up with $2.7 million for spilling coffee on herself. News stations took her to task, late night comedians had a field day.
But did any of us really know the details of the story?
With the opening of Ralph Nader’s new American Museum of Tort Law in Winsted, Connecticut, the truth behind some of the more enduring cases of corporate shenanigans are explored. Among histories of exploding Ford Pintos and Joe Camel, the facts behind Liebeck’s case come to light.
As the museum states:
The coffee that burned Stella Liebeck was dangerously hot – hot enough to cause third-degree burns, even through clothes, in three seconds. Liebeck endured third-degree burns over 16 percent of her body, including her inner thighs and genitals – the skin was burned away to the layers of muscle and fatty tissue. She had to be hospitalized for eight days, and she required skin grafts and other treatment. Her recovery lasted two years.
Even with all of that pain and agony, Liebeck made an offer to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000 to cover costs associated with the injury. McDonald’s countered with an offer of $800. Liebeck pursued the case in court; and not to gouge the fast food giant for cash, but to make a difference.
At home, most coffee makers brew a drink that measures between 135 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Some restaurants go a bit hotter, up to 160 F; that temperature can cause third-degree burns in 20 seconds, which gives people enough time to wipe it off before it does too much damage.
“We knew, before the lawsuit was filed, that the temperature of the water was 190 F or so, and the franchise documents required that of the franchisee,” said Kenneth Wagner, a lawyer who represented Liebeck.
700 other people prior to Liebeck had suffered from McDonald’s scalding coffee, yet the company maintained its policy. “The company knew its coffee was causing serious burns,” notes the museum, “but it decided that, with billions of cups served annually, this number of burns was not significant.” Liebeck was concerned about the others who had burned, and especially that the 700 other victims included children.
“Our position was that the product was unreasonably dangerous, and the temperature should have been lower,” Wagner said.
Liebeck was awarded $200,000 in compensation for her pain and medical costs, a figure that was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found her 20 percent responsible. They also awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages, which the trial judge reduced to $480,000, even though he called McDonald’s behavior had been “willful, wanton, and reckless.” The final settlement was even less.
Consumer advocates suggest that painting McDonald’s as the victim was a way for business interests and certain lawmakers to create a narrative about frivolous lawsuits in an effort to advance a tort reform agenda that would hamper consumer rights and strengthen a lack of corporate accountability.
On the one hand truly frivolous lawsuits make sensible people want to bang their heads against the wall, but the importance of holding corporations responsible for wrongdoing shouldn’t be diminished. “Tort law is being run into the ground, maligned, caricatured and slandered because it’s effective,” says Nader, who described the conservative agenda of tort reform, which seeks limits on lawsuits and financial awards, as “the cruelest movement I’ve ever encountered.”
Which is why now you can go to a museum in Winsted, Connecticut and look at exhibits starring Erin Brockovich and Big Tobacco ... and a senior citizen in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who was concerned about kids getting burned by hot coffee.