On Aug. 18, 1994, a New Mexico civil jury awarded 79-year-old Albuquerque, New Mexico, resident Stella Liebeck $2.86 million in compensatory and punitive damages for severe scalding burns she sustained from spilling a 49-cent cup of McDonald’s coffee.
Tort reformists successfully used the highly publicized case to try to persuade everyday Americans that people were abusing the legal system, coining phrases like “jackpot justice” to portray complaints like Ms. Liebeck’s as “frivolous” while brushing key facts of the case under the rug.
What should have been a minor mishap for Ms. Liebeck became months of agony and life-threatening injuries simply because McDonald’s served its coffee dangerously hot.
Riding as a passenger in her grandson’s car, Ms. Liebeck ordered a cup of coffee at the McDonald’s drive-through. With the car parked, Ms. Liebeck positioned the cup of coffee between her knees so she could remove the lid and add cream and sugar. Her grandson’s 1989 Ford Probe had no cup holders.
Back in 1992, when the accident happened, McDonald’s required its franchises to serve blistering hot coffee, literally. At temperatures of 180-190 degrees, McDonald’s coffee was hot enough to cause third-degree burns in as little as two seconds.
When the coffee spilled, Ms. Liebeck’s sweatpants absorbed and held the scalding liquid against her skin. She was taken to the emergency room, where doctors found she had third-degree burns on her thighs, buttocks, and groin. Initially, doctors were concerned that Ms. Liebeck’s injuries were so severe that she wouldn’t survive.
Ms. Liebeck remained in the hospital several days while she underwent skin grafting procedures on her burn injuries – a process so painful and taxing that she lost nearly 20 pounds of her body weight. She also had to undergo medical treatments for her disfiguring and crippling burns for years afterward.
McDonald’s knew better than to serve coffee hot enough to cause third-degree burns, especially when the chain routinely served it from the drive-through window to motorists. More than 700 burn cases involving McDonald’s coffee were reported in the 10 years preceding Liebeck’s accident.
Ms. Liebeck sued McDonald’s, arguing that the coffee was unreasonably and dangerously hot and therefore defective, thereby putting anyone in the vicinity of a spilled cup of McDonald’s coffee at risk of serious injury.
The “Hot Coffee” case occurred at the perfect time for tort-reform supporters and corporate lobbyists, who were pushing federal legislation to limit consumers’ access to courts in cases of personal injury or other harm. Attacks and campaigns of misinformation about the case ramped up after a 12-member jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $2.86 million, and Ms. Liebeck was widely mocked and ridiculed on television and radio shows, and in widely circulated emails, magazines and other media.
“The only purpose of tort reform is to take away the rights of consumers and to protect wrongdoers from being held accountable,” says Beasley Allen lawyer Navan Ward, Jr., who is serving as Treasurer for the American Association for Justice (AAJ). “Examining what happened in the ‘Hot Coffee’ case is instrumental in showing how proponents of tort reform use ‘alternative facts’ of various lawsuits in order to negatively influence the masses against the need for the civil justice system.”
In fact, before she sued McDonald’s Ms. Liebeck sought to settle with the restaurant chain for $20,000 to cover her actual and anticipated expenses. Instead, the company offered only $800. When McDonald’s refused to raise its offer, Ms. Liebeck hired a lawyer whose multiple offers to settle the case were rejected, and the case went to court.
The $2.86 million jury award was pared down to $640,000 on appeal, but in the end McDonald’s was ordered to pay more than twice the highest settlement amount Ms. Liebeck’s lawyer offered.
“Corporate interests demean the civil justice system and make fun of the process,” explains Beasley Allen lawyer Frank Woodson, who is currently serving as President of the Alabama Association for Justice (ALAJ). “But Ms. Liebeck’s case exemplifies how well the process works. The initial filtering process is the assessment of the case by lawyers who often take cases on a contingency basis, earning a fee only if there is a recovery; lawyers understandably will avoid a case where the claim is unlikely to succeed. Even after a jury verdict, a judge has the right to modify a jury’s damage award as happened in the McDonalds case.”
Nevertheless, Liebeck v. McDonald’s became a flashpoint in the debate over tort reform.
The Hot Coffee case was used to convince the public that the justice system is somehow flawed. It sought to cover up the truth about punitive damages – that often the only way to convince a corporation to change its ways is to hit it where it really hurts: in the pocketbook.
Yet, proponents of tort reform managed to convince the public that their fellow citizens – and especially the trial lawyers who represent them – are greedy, only out for their own interest. In reality, these folks are simply representatives of everyman who stands to be injured through the neglect, carelessness and often blatant disregard Big Business has for the safety and wellbeing of trusting consumers.
“Personal injury claims serve the public,” Woodson said. “More than simply compensating victims, meritorious lawsuits can force corporate or individual defendants to change or modify the behavior that caused the harm or injury. Stella Liebeck’s lawsuit against McDonald’s changed McDonald’s behavior after more than 700 similar severe burns.”
The civil justice system is a cornerstone of our democracy. The right to trial by an impartial jury – free from influence or persuasion – is the only thing that levels the playing field. Why are we so willing to give up these rights?
In 2011, an original documentary film about the Liebeck v McDonald’s case, Hot Coffee, premiered on HBO.
Hot Coffee: A documentary feature film by Susan Saladoff