April 22, 2024

Hot Coffee—Not so Frivolous

Perhaps the most infamous product liability lawsuit in U.S. history is the 1994 case of Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants. Comedians and late-show hosts had a lot of fun with this case, which many media outlets portrayed as a frivolous lawsuit. “It’s coffee, of course it’s hot,” went the refrain of the day.

Insurance companies jumped on the case, citing it as an example of the need for tort reform to reduce the ability of injured persons to bring lawsuits against negligent companies. Digging past the headlines, however, reveals this case (and a handful of similar suits since) was not as frivolous as the insurance companies would like the public to believe.

Frivolous Lawsuits are Incredibly Rare

Personal injury law exists to protect the public from harm due to the negligence, carelessness and reckless actions of others. Certainly, there will always be people looking to abuse systems that are meant to do good things, but it’s actually rare in tort law for frivolous cases to get far. Very few ever make it to court, which may be why it’s such a news story when one occasionally does.

This is, at least in part, because most personal injury attorneys work on a contingency basis—meaning they only receive payment if they win a case. Therefore, wise attorneys simply won’t take on so-called “frivolous” cases. With little chance to win the case, and therefore be paid, why would any legal professional put valuable time and energy into preparing such a case?

Protecting People from Harm

The overwhelming majority of personal injury cases seek to do two things: compensate people who have been harmed by other peoples’ negligence, and deter people (and companies) from endangering others through careless or reckless behavior. The greater purpose of tort law is not to punish those who do wrong—although punitive damages may apply in cases of gross, or extreme, negligence—but to help victims rebuild their lives after a devastating injury that someone else caused.

By helping injury victims at the expense of those who caused the harm, personal injury lawyers achieve the second purpose. People and companies, knowing they could face a lawsuit for wrongfully careless behavior, exhibit more awareness and caution than they otherwise might.

One can argue that this benefit is worth seeing the infrequent so-called frivolous lawsuit make its way to court.

The “Hot Coffee” Case

Yes, coffee is hot. It’s reasonable to assume that everyone has a personal responsibility to use proper caution when handling hot liquids, to avoid a scald injury. Many people assume the plaintiff was driving when she spilled the coffee into her lap, and that a combination of anger and greed drove her to sue McDonald’s after the incident.

Those people couldn’t be more wrong.

Far from a frivolous case, Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants was the type of lawsuit that protects all of us. Here are some lesser-known facts about the case—facts that the late show hosts and comedians left out of their narratives. In the defense of said entertainers, these facts are somewhat less than funny.

  • McDonald’s coffee was, at the time, served at a temperature between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit. This is 20 to 30 degrees hotter than coffee served at most other restaurants.
  • In the 10 years prior to this case, over 700 people scalded by coffee burns had made claims against the company. Yet McDonald’s never lowered the serving temperature of its coffee.
  • The plaintiff, 79-year old Stella Liebeck, was in the passenger seat of a parked car when the spill happened. She was trying to add cream and sugar to the cup when it slipped, spilling the liquid onto her lap.
  • Liebeck suffered a very painful injury; third degree burns across her thighs, genitalia and buttocks.
  • Liebeck spent 7 days in the hospital and another three weeks recovering at home, where her daughter traveled to care for her.
  • The family initially asked McDonalds only to cover the injured woman’s out-of-pocket expenses, some $2,000 plus her daughter’s lost wages. McDonald’s offered $800.
  • Only after McDonald’s refused to raise their offer did Liebeck file a lawsuit.

Liebeck’s lawsuit asked for $100,000 in compensatory damages, including pain and suffering, and three times that amount in punitive damages. She won her case.

Does it still seem that Stella Liebeck was greedy and taking advantage of McDonald’s for personal gain after her own carelessness?

If you think someone else’s carelessness or disregard for others caused you to be injured, don’t worry about what others may think. An experienced personal injury lawyer can help you move on after a devastating injury.

Contact us today for a free case evaluation. Call 1-800-842-8462 (1-800-Victim2)

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