Almost all of us have heard about the lady who spilled McDonald’s coffee on herself that resulted in a jury verdict in the amount of $2.9 million. Big companies and interests harmful to victims’ rights scooped up the story, twisted the facts, and presented the case as an example of why laws needed to be changed to benefit big business, not real people. 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 and many of the burns were third degree burns. Third degree burns are the most severe burns possible. Ms. Liebeck was in the hospital 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 that this temperature could cause third degree burns in seconds. In addition, before Ms. Liebeck’s severe burns, McDonald’s had received almost seven hundred complaints from customers that they had been burned by McDonald’s coffee. Despite over almost seven hundred injury complaints, McDonald’s never changed its policy. McDonald’s took the position that the many victims were “statistically insignificant” and McDonald’s was not going to change what it did. At trial, McDonald’s blamed Ms. Liebeck for spilling the coffee on herself. But 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 in the amount of $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 companies 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. Ms. Liebeck’s story is also detailed in an excellent documentary entitled Hot Coffee.
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