The much-maligned McDonald’s Coffee Case spilled the truth about how product liability lawsuits protect us
By Kelly Hayes-Raitt
When Stella Liebeck perched a cup of McDonald’s coffee between her knees to add cream and sugar, she never dreamt she’d become corporations’ rallying cry to bar consumers from courtrooms.
Liebeck was in the passenger seat of a parked car when she spilled the coffee all over her lap.
It was hot … so hot that it burned through her sweatpants, skin, muscles and nerves down to her bones in a matter of seconds, causing third-degree burns over 16% of her body.
The 79-year-old woman went into shock, was hospitalized for eight days and needed several skin grafts.
Liebeck wrote McDonald’s asking for about $10,000 to cover her medical bills. McDonald’s offered $800. Liebeck sued.
At first, jurors were understandably skeptical about holding a company responsible for an elderly woman’s clumsiness. But during trial in 1994, they learned that McDonald’s deliberately brewed and sold its coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees, at least 30 degrees hotter than most home brewing machines.
The jury also learned that McDonald’s had knowingly been serving dangerously hot coffee for more than a decade and that nearly 700 other people had claimed they’d been burned by hot coffee between 1983 and 1992, cases that McDonald’s had dealt with quietly. McDonald’s argued that the number of burns was “statistically insignificant” for the company to change the way it served coffee.
The jury unanimously awarded Stella Liebeck $200,000, which they reduced to $160,000 because they found her 20% at fault. More importantly, they also awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages aimed at punishing McDonald’s for deliberate disregard for customer safety. That amount, the jury calculated, was McDonald’s profit from two days of coffee sales.
The judge later reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, a footnote that was not as widely reported as the original verdict, which became a sexist, ageist late-night punchline about the worth of an elderly woman’s crotch. To avoid lengthy appeals, Liebeck settled out of court.
McDonald’s public relations division went into overdrive, spinning the case as an example of out-of-control frivolous litigation against American corporations with greedy trial lawyers at the helm. That myth persists, proving that if a corporation throws around enough money, they win even when they’ve lost.
In fact, tort cases — where an injured party sues for money because he or she was harmed by a company or a person either on purpose or due to negligence — make up only 6% of the entire civil caseload. And the volume of these cases has actually declined steadily over the past 30 years, both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of all civil lawsuits, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
(Trials that do continue to clog the courts are cases where corporations sue each other over trade and market infringement or debt collection.)
In spite of the reality, the “frivolous lawsuits” myth persists because corporations want it to, so they can push for “tort reform” to eliminate any opportunity for injured consumers to sue them.
“The Judicial Branch is the only branch of government in which the average American of limited wealth can go toe-to-toe against the biggest corporations in America,” explains Harvey Rosenfield, founder of the Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog, an organization that has successfully defeated tort reform in California. “When Congress and the White House are so easily bought by special interests, it is the judicial system that allows people access to justice.”
Making it possible for average Americans to take on corporate giants are trial attorneys — attorneys who specialize in helping injured consumers by taking their cases on a contingency fee basis. If the consumer doesn’t win, his or her attorney doesn’t collect a fee. If the consumer wins, the attorney’s fee is a percentage of the final award or settlement.
Stella Liebeck was helped by such an attorney and by the judicial system — not by Congress passing laws to prevent corporations from serving dangerous foods or by the regulatory system enforcing existing protections.
Corporations enjoy unfettered spending in Congressional elections since the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court “Citizens United” decision and don’t fear regulatory agencies whose stretched budgets often rely on corporations’ own testing and reporting to approve a product for market. When unsafe products hit the market, lawsuits are often the only way an unsuspecting public can protect itself.
And so the corporate assault on the civil justice system marches onward: In 2013, 71 bills were introduced in Congress to make it harder for average Americans to access our civil justice system.
“To some extent, the battle has already been lost,” says consumer watchdog Rosenfield. “The U.S. Supreme Court is issuing decision after decision limiting [consumer lawsuits]. In [state] legislative battles, companies got their immunities and [award] limitations they were looking for.”
Ask most injured consumers and they’ll tell you they didn’t sue for money. Most will say that there isn’t enough money in the world to pay for their pain and suffering caused by corporate malfeasance. Most say they want to hold the corporation accountable and make sure no one else suffers as they have.
Stella Liebeck just wanted her medical bills covered. She didn’t expect her injuries would make national headlines. What didn’t make headlines, however, is that her lawsuit worked: McDonald’s stopped serving such dangerously hot coffee, removing at least one hazardous product from the market.
Kelly Hayes-Raitt, a Santa Monica resident, was the statewide spokesperson against three “tort reform” initiatives that California voters defeated in March 1996. She’s been a national advocate for maintaining citizens’ rights to hold corporations accountable in courtrooms. She blogs at LivingLargeInLimbo.com and can be reached at KellyArgonautColumn@aol.com.