Most of my readers have heard of the “Hot Coffee” case, in which Stella Liebeck was awarded nearly $3 million after suffering severe third-degree burns from a cup of McDonald’s coffee; the trial judge drastically reduced the damages award and the case later settled for an undisclosed amount.
You may think you know the case, but do you really? The “Hot Coffee” most Americans know is a distortion of fact and law, fed to them by the media and pro-business tort-reformers. They have bastardized the result in this case to advance their absurd, but effective, campaign alleging abuses in the civil justice system. The case has been the poster child for these anti-citizen groups to depict our civil courts as places where people may ‘hit the lottery’ by filing ‘frivolous’ cases.
Here are the real facts of the case: Ms. Liebeck was a passenger in her grandson’s car. After purchasing coffee at a New Mexico McDonald’s drive-thru, her grandson pulled over and parked the car in a parking space so that his grandmother could add cream and sugar to her coffee. The car did not have cup holders, so Ms. Liebeck braced the coffee cup between her legs. As she tried to take the lid off, the coffee spilled; Stella received third-degree burns over 16 percent of her body. She was hospitalized for eight days, had multiple operations and skin grafts to treat her devastating injuries. Despite her extensive injuries, Liebeck was not especially litigious; she sought only to collect her medical bills (approximately $20,000). McDonald’s refused and offered a paltry $800, forcing her to litigate the claim.
During discovery leading up to the trial, Liebeck’s attorney uncovered some startling safety issues. It was determined, thru internal documents, that the coffee that burned Ms. Liebeck exceeded 180 degrees; experts in the case agreed that coffee served at this temperature could cause third-degree burns in as little as two seconds. (Industry experts opine that while coffee may need to be brewed between 180 and 190 degrees, it must be served at a much lower temperate, closer to 130-140 degrees). Additional McDonald’s documents showed that the company had received more than 700 complaints between 1982 and 1992, alleging burns of varying degrees while consuming or preparing to consume McDonald’s coffee.
The jury ruled in Lieback’s favor and reasonably calculated that she was 20% at fault to McDonald’s 80%. She was awarded $200,000 in compensation, her 20% comparative negligence lowered her award to $160,000. She also received $2.7 million (approximately 2 days of McDonald’s national coffee sales) in punitive damages; the jury was intent on discouraging McDonald’s from engaging in grossly negligent behavior. But the judge reduced that award to $480,000. These very sensible awards were not low enough for the greedy executives at McDonald’s; the company appealed and the parties eventually settled for an undisclosed amount.
There must have been safety changes as a result of this controversial verdict, right? Well, not so fast. Hot coffee lawsuits and verdicts are no longer national news, but such incidents have risen in the last few years. In 2013, Joan Fino of Fresno, California filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s alleging she suffered severe burns after an employee handed her a cup of coffee at the drive-through window. Fino said she was alone in her vehicle when she ordered two cups of coffee — one for her and one for her husband. She said when she was handed the first cup, coffee spilled out from under the lid and burned her fingers. She quickly put the cup in a cup holder. When the employee handed her the second cup, the coffee spilled on her lap because the lid was not properly secured. Fino said she began screaming, but no one came to her aid. Fino said the pain was so excruciating that she unbuckled her seat belt, got out of her car, and raced to the McDonald’s restroom. “I left the car running in the drive-through,” she said. Still, no one came to her aid. When an employee finally approached her, Fino was simply asked to provide her name and phone number. The only attempt McDonald’s made to reach out to her was made by an insurance agent, who asked her if she had blisters. The case settled for an undisclosed amount.
Most recently, Darlene Jenkins and Robin Bebout, filed separate claims after they suffered second-degree burns from spilled McDonald’s coffee at a drive-through window. Like the Fino case, these lawsuits allege that the plaintiffs were handed cups of scalding hot coffee with lids that were not properly secured. Both plaintiffs are being represented by attorney Nicolas “Butch” Wagner who also handled the 2013 Fino case.
Despite clear notice of a public safety problem, despite paying millions of dollars to settle multiple ‘hot coffee’ cases. McDonald’s still serves its coffee at scalding temperatures. And here’s an even scarier statistic: The vast majority of cases involving individuals who have been burned by hot coffee at McDonald’s go unreported every year.
The assault on safety continues while McDonald’s and others cry “frivolous” or “junk” when a citizen attempts to hold them responsible. Corporate interests cleverly ‘cherry-pick’ and distort funny sounding cases and market them as trivial or ludicrous. They lobby our elected officials to seek bailouts and protections from the civil justice system; “the system is broken”, they cry. “We need protections from runaway juries.” The opposite is true. Litigation restrictions suppress meritorious claims, deny injured citizens fair and just compensation for their injuries, bailout the responsible corporation and shift the burden of care and support to the taxpayer in the form of public assistance and Medicaid. Republicans (by far, the political party that most advances tort reform) like to call themselves the party of personal responsibility. How does bailing out responsible corporations and their insurance companies (who profited from accepting the risk of company negligence) and shifting responsibility to the taxpayers fit the criteria for ‘personal responsibility’? Only when they become a victim (Governor Greg Abbott of Texas) or stand to make a large fee representing the victim (Ted Cruz) do they recognize the rights of the victim. These are the worst type of tort reform hypocrites. It isn’t until someone becomes a victim that they realize the only benefit of tort reform is to line the pockets of greedy insurance companies and large corporations. I don’t begrudge corporate profit; I’m a capitalist. But, I also believe that corporations should be responsible citizens; their representatives should tell the truth. It is wrong to lie and cheat to make a profit. It is wrong to use financial power and political clout to profit at the expense of the injured or disabled, especially if it is your negligence that caused the injury or disability.
The justice system is supposed to be the great equalizer; we are all supposed to be equal in the eyes of the law. Corporations should not be allowed to buy the results they seek through political contributions and catchy, distorted rhetoric. Our civil justice system exists to provide a fair hearing on the facts and hold individuals and corporations accountable when they do harm. Accountability should not have artificial limits; the Seventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution mandates trial by jury (not by legislation or legislators) in civil cases. Why do Republicans tout the Second Amendment and ignore the Seventh?
This is an election year. Find out where your state and federal elected officials stand on these important issues. Research their voting records. If they have supported tort reform measures, consider voting for their opponent (but check his/her record, as well). Tell them to stand up for you, not corporate welfare or bailouts. Tell corporate America, through your vote, to stop deceiving the public on these issues. Learn the facts about injury and disability cases, as well as the false arguments for artificial limits and restrictions on those cases. Citizen juries are a fine example of “we the people”; don’t let corporations and politicians step on your Seventh Amendment rights to unrestricted civil jury trials. Exercise the franchise this November and start a civil justice revolution.
Attorney, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series. Mark Bello is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.