The civil justice system has been under heavy strike for over 25 years.
A recent video article by The New York Times, located here, tells the true story. Stella Liebeck’s case against McDonald’s is “the most widely misunderstood story in America.” The perception is that Ms. Liebeck “won a lottery,” according to Professor John Llewellyn of Wake Forest University, “but the facts are much more complicated than that.”
The coffee spilled on Ms. Liebeck as she removed the lid to add creamer. The severity of Ms. Liebeck’s burns caused her to go into shock, and she was rushed to the emergency room. She was burned over 16% of her body, many of which were third-degree burns. Third-degree burns are the most severe burns possible.
Ms. Liebeck was hospitalized for a week, and her bills totaled approximately $10,000.00. Ms. Liebeck had no intention of suing McDonald’s but did write a letter asking them to check the temperature of their coffee and to reimburse her (she was retired and 79 years old at the time) for the medical bills she incurred.
McDonald’s responded by offering $800.00. After McDonald’s insulting response, Ms. Liebeck hired a personal injury attorney.
Ms. Liebeck had never sued anyone before in her life. Before the trial, Ms. Liebeck tried to settle twice out of court, but McDonald’s refused.
The evidence showed that McDonald’s standard policy was to serve coffee at 180-190 degrees, but this temperature could cause third-degree burns in seconds. In addition, before Ms. Liebeck’s severe burns, McDonald’s had received almost seven hundred customer complaints that McDonald’s coffee had burned. Despite nearly seven hundred injury complaints, McDonald’s kept its policy the same.
The company took the position that the many victims were “statistically insignificant” and McDonald’s would not change what it did.
At the trial, McDonald’s blamed Ms. Liebeck for spilling the coffee on herself. However, the jury saw the graphic photos of the severe burns to Ms. Liebeck’s groin area requiring skin grafts to close the third-degree burns.
The jury deliberated for four hours before returning a verdict of $200,000 for Ms. Liebeck’s compensatory damages, which was reduced to $160,000 because Ms. Liebeck spilled the coffee on herself. The jury, however, assessed punitive damages against McDonald’s to force them to change their temperature policy for $2.7 million.
The jury based this amount on the revenue from two days’ worth of McDonald’s coffee sales. The size of the verdict ultimately overshadowed the facts of the case. The media frequently failed to report the actual facts and how the jury reached its decision. Big businesses and insurance companies used a twisted and incorrect version of the case to claim the legal system was out of control, even though nothing could be further from the truth.
A.B.C. News called the instance “the poster child of too many claims.” Jonathan Turley called the instance “a purposeful, as well as a worthy, lawsuit.”
McDonald’s asserts that the result of the case was a fluke. It attributed the loss to poor tactics used by an insurance company unfamiliar with representing a franchise business.
Liebeck’s attorney, Reed Morgan, and the Association of Trial Attorneys of America defended the case by claiming that McDonald’s minimized the temperature of its coffee after the fact. However, it is unclear whether McDonald’s had actually done so.
As a result of the case, HBO premiered a docudrama concerning tort reform problems. Ms. Liebeck’s story is detailed in this excellent documentary entitled Hot Coffee.
A significant portion of the film covered Liebeck’s claim. This included information clips, comments from celebrities and politicians about the situation, myths, and false impressions. For example, many people falsely thought she was driving when the event happened and assumed she endured only minor shallow burns.
The film also discussed how the case of Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants is frequently used and misused to define a frivolous claim and referenced with tort reform efforts. It argues that firms have invested millions of advertising dollars promoting misconceptions of particular tort cases to further promote tort reform. In reality, most of the problems in the case were consequences of McDonald’s’ careless disregard for the many coffee burn victims before Liebeck.
Although federal regulations have not been successful, big business interests have actually seemed to prevail in the court of public opinion. They launched a campaign to convince the general public that we have too many pointless suits, out-of-control juries, and a civil justice system that requires change.
They have used anecdotes, half-truths, and occasionally outright lies in their efforts to restrict people’s accessibility to the court system, the only place where a typical resident can go toe to toe with those with money and power and still have a shot at justice.
With more than 40 years of experience, we have the knowledge and skill to help individuals who the careless or malevolent actions of another have hurt. If you have been injured by someone’s negligence, you are entitled to compensation for your pain and suffering and reimbursement for your resultant expenses. Our team of experienced attorneys is dedicated to helping you get the compensation you deserve.
If you have been injured and need assistance, let Buchanan, Williams, & O’Brien help you. We will work tirelessly and aggressively on your claim. Our team has the experience you need to get the outcomes you want. Plus, Missouri is the Show-Me State where actions speak louder than words. As a result, you will only owe us if we recoup money for you. Contact us today to get started.