By Angela Hallinan
Nearly 20 years after the initial verdict, the case of Stella Liebeck vs. McDonald’s “Hot Coffee” has turned into the poster child for tort reform. The case is synonymous with the overly-litigious nature of Americans who need warning labels on washcloths. Suing for a cup of coffee being too hot is the very definition of a “frivolous” lawsuit. Or is it?
The story was featured in Retro Report, an organization whose mission is to reveal the truth about major cases that have been misrepresented by the media. The magnitude of this case had devastating consequences that would affect future plaintiffs.
Stella Liebeck, 79, was seated in a parked Ford Probe at McDonald’s on February 27th, 1992. She had ordered a coffee along with her breakfast and her grandson, who was driving at the time, parked the car for Stella to put some cream and sugar in the coffee. As was common 20 years ago, the car lacked a cup holder. She had placed the cup of coffee between her legs to remove the lid, and it spilled in the process. The seat design for Probe’s was a “bucket seat,” and when the coffee spilled, she literally sat in a puddle of scalding hot coffee. The burns covered 16% of her lower half, 6% were third degree burns and she had to receive skin grafts from her thighs.
The burns she sustained in the incident were so severe, her doctors and surgeons were unsure whether or not she’d live. Her initial request to McDonald’s suggested that they cover the $10,000 in medical bills. That amount was decided on before she had received the skin grafts. McDonald’s offered Liebeck $800 in response to her request for the damages. Stella decided to seek counsel after receiving their offer and hired Kenneth Wagner, who had been previously represented another victim who had been burned by McDonald’s coffee. They filed suit against McDonald’s for “Gross Negligence”.
In the trial, it had been brought to light that McDonald’s had received over 700 previous complaints from coffee burn victims. McDonald’s stated that their coffee holding temperature was the industry standard of 180-190 degree Fahrenheit. Dr. David Arredondo, Liebeck’s surgeon, stated that “180 degrees or hotter in contact with skin for more than a few seconds will produce burns. If you’re lucky only second degree burns, if you get third degree, that will require skin grafts.” Graphic photos of Liebeck’s burns were produced as evidence in the trial.
A twelve-person jury initially awarded Stella Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages, and $2.7 million in punitive damages. Judge Robert Scott reduced the compensatory damages to $160,000 based on the fact she was found 20% at fault, and the punitive damages to $480,000 stating “I think that there was evidence and argument about the Defendant’s knowledge that the coffee could cause serious, third degree, full tissue burns. The Defendant McDonald’s knew that the coffee, at the time it was served, was too hot for human consumption.”
Both parties appealed in December and it was finally settled out of court for less than $600,000. The amount awarded for punitive damages was based upon the two days worth of coffee sales. The jurors wanted to send a message to McDonald’s using the punitive damages to have them rethink the severity of turning a blind eye to 700 burn victims prior to Stella Liebeck. A section found in a publication of U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics supports that decision: “Punitive damages are not awarded for the purpose of compensating injured plaintiffs, but are almost exclusively reserved for civil claims in which the defendant’s conduct was considered grossly negligent or intentional. Punitive damages are intended to serve as a means for punishing the defendant and deterring others from committing similar actions.” Although the punitive damages were reduced by the judge, he did state that McDonald’s engaged in “willful, wanton, and reckless behavior.”
The “Hot Coffee” lawsuit has been the punchline for late night comedians like Jay Leno, David Letterman, and was even the subject of an extended joke in an episode of Seinfeld. Pro-tort reform politicians waged a media battle against an individual and won. Consequently, conservative republicans who were taking aggressive political action against “frivolous lawsuits” saw this case as an opportunity to rally a campaign in their favor, since a majority of Americans believed Stella Liebeck was solely after the money.
The misrepresented version of events spread like wildfire, fueled both by political interests and a campaign of deliberate misinformation by McDonald's. What began as an injured old lady merely trying to get her medical bills paid for became one of the most widely referenced and mocked civil court cases in American history.