Stella Liebeck is hardly a household name, but mention the McDonald’s coffee case and without a doubt, most people know who she is. In 1994, personal injury attorneys won a substantial verdict for Ms. Liebeck after she suffered severe, life-threatening burns when the McDonald’s coffee she purchased spilled onto her lap.
Quickly, the 79-year-old became the face of “frivolous lawsuits.” ABC News even nicknamed the case “the poster child of excessive lawsuits.” McDonald’s, along with other corporations and lawmakers, seized the opportunity to promote the idea that everyday people were using their injuries as a way to get rich quick. McDonald’s launched a public campaign attacking Ms. Liebeck and distorting the facts so that it seemed she was driving while drinking hot coffee and spilled the liquid on herself, the burns being caused by her own irresponsibility. Many people believed Ms. Liebeck was trying to recover a large amount of money from the company for a minor injury.
In fact, Ms. Liebeck was sitting in the passenger side of a vehicle while it was parked after ordering her coffee. She had opened the lid of the coffee with one hand while using the other hand to hold the cup. As she opened the lid, the coffee spilled onto her lap causing third-degree burns to her thighs. The resulting injuries required extensive medical treatment, including skin grafts. Initially, Ms. Liebeck’s family contacted McDonald’s via a written letter advising them that the coffee temperature may be too high and asked only that the company cover her medical expenses— about $10,000 total. McDonald’s offered to pay $800. It was then that Ms. Liebeck sought legal action.
Eventually the case went to trial where it was discovered, per the franchise policy, that the coffee holding temperature was between 180-190 degrees. Liebeck’s personal injury attorneys brought in their expert witness, a physician, who testified in court that 180 degrees can cause second and third degree burns that require surgery and skin grafts. Moreover, McDonald’s own trial evidence revealed more than 700 previous complaints had been made to the fast food chain between 1983-1992 about the temperature of their coffee and burns other customers had suffered.
Ultimately, a jury returned a unanimous verdict for Ms. Liebeck finding her 20 percent at fault and McDonald’s 80 percent at fault. She was awarded $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. In awarding that particular amount of punitive damages, the approximate amount of two days of coffee sales, the jury intended it to be substantial enough that it would cause McDonald’s to change its behavior and indifference to the injuries of its customers. Ms. Liebeck’s award was subsequently reduced by a judge to $480,000 and settled by the parties for a confidential amount.
Soon after, companies began to appeal to the federal government to change tort laws. They successfully passed a Tort Reform Act through Senate but it was vetoed by President Clinton. However, companies have still not given up their efforts to get laws passed that affect a victim’s ability to be fully and fairly compensated. They have instead focused on individual state laws and have successfully had caps, or a maximum amount of damages that can be awarded in a given case, put in place in several states.
Ms. Liebeck’s case is discussed in the HBO documentary “Hot Coffee,” which explores the issue of tort reform and its effects. The documentary also examines medical malpractice lawsuits by looking at the case of a family who was expecting twin boys. After a delayed delivery caused the deprivation of oxygen to one of the babies, he was born with a serious brain injury. Though a jury awarded damages to the family in the amount of $5.65 million, they live in Texas where a cap on damages caused the award to be reduced to $1.25 million. The reduced amount was not enough to cover the costs of his care over the course of his life and thus taxpayers, not the wrongdoers who caused the injury, will end up paying for it.
The documentary also shows how tort reform plays a part in government in the case of former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz. In a campaign to unseat judges who opposed tort reform, Justice Diaz, at the time seeking reelection, was attacked in television ads paid for by out-of-state corporate groups disguised as grassroots organizations. Although Justice Diaz won reelection, he was eventually prosecuted on criminal charges that tainted his reputation. Justice Diaz was acquitted of all criminal charges, but lost the next election due to the negative publicity surrounding the allegations. He was replaced by a pro-tort reform judge.
The tort reform movement has taken on several different forms and will have a major impact on personal injury victims. Under the Joint and Several Liability rule, an injured victim can recover the full-amount of damages from any one of the wrongdoers. If states either repeal joint and several liability or place caps on damages, some victims will undoubtedly suffer from not being able to cover medical expenses or the cost of care in the future. It puts a victim and their family in a position where someone else’s mistake costs them, and that’s unfair and irresponsible. No injured party should ever have to take on additional costs because big businesses and insurance companies want to enjoy a lower business cost.
The Philadelphia personal injury attorneys at Messa & Associates support victims of catastrophic injuries resulting from medical malpractice, defective products, explosions, birth negligence. We believe personal injury victims should have the ability to present their cases in court and have a jury determine a reasonable and fair amount to help injured parties recover their damages. For a free consultation, call 1-877-MessaLaw, or submit a free online inquiry.
Joseph L. Messa, Jr. is the founding partner of Messa & Associates, P.C. He is an AV-rated attorney (highest rating available), listed in the Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers. Read More