My apologies to Stella Liebeck

I’ll admit it: I was wrong. I believed the hype. I fell for the catchphrases I heard in the press instead of looking into it. I was part of the problem. I believed that the 1994 lawsuit, in which a woman sued McDonald’s for the temperature of their coffee, was a perfect example of a litigious American society run rampant. I was disgusted with the plaintiff, Stella Liebeck, without ever having met her or learning the particulars of her case. I even laughed along when Seinfeld mocked it.

So when I watched the HBO documentary Hot Coffee (imdb | rotten tomatoes) yesterday I was shocked. And a little ashamed. Really quickly, here are the key points that debunked everything we’d been told about this ‘frivolous lawsuit’:

  • Liebeck wasn’t driving when the coffee spilled on her. She was sitting in the passenger side of a parked car.
  • She suffered third-degree burns on 6% of her body and lesser burns over another 16%. You see the burns in the documentary; they’re horrifying. This 79-year-old woman was in the hospital for eight days getting skin grafts on her legs, groin and buttocks, and spent the next two years getting treatments.
  • She didn’t sue for millions. In fact, she offered to settle for enough to cover her medical bills and lost income (about $20,000) and only asked that McDonald’s keep their coffee at a slightly lower temperature so this wouldn’t happen to other people. McDonald’s refused. At trial, the jury awarded her $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2,700,000 in punitive damages. The punitive amount was reduced to $480,000 by the judge, and McDonald’s ultimately settled out of court for less than that.
  • McDonald’s had received literally hundreds of complaints about the temperature of their coffee before the trial. For some reason they kept it hotter than most restaurants.

From there, the documentary turns quickly to the major theme: that corporations and their lobbyists seized on this case and began to spin. Phrases like ‘frivolous lawsuit’, ‘lawsuit abuse’, ‘lawsuit lotto’ and ‘jackpot justice’ began to spring up to convince the public that the civil courts were being abused. This allowed them to enact laws which limited damages in civil suits (President Clinton vetoed this at the federal level, but lobbyists were often successful at the state level) as well as to insert clauses in contracts which forbade employees or contract holders from suing companies for personal damages.

It’s an incredibly frustrating documentary, but also a very important one. It’s still airing on HBO, and TMN here in Canada, so go watch it, and find out more on their site.

Sorry Mrs. Liebeck.

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