New McDonald’s Lawsuit Revives Story of “Hot Coffee”

“Frivolous Lawsuits”

With the filing of Carlson vs. McDonald’s in 2014, we have again been bombarded with the idea of “frivolous” lawsuits. Most everyone remembers the media explosion 20 years ago when Stella Liebeck sued McDonald’s over the temperature of the coffee and the resulting burns and injuries she sustained. The lawsuit 20 years ago received national media attention and was the topic of much humor and discussion. In fact, Seinfield even did an entire episode making fun of the lawsuit. Leno and Letterman made frequent jokes, and so did Saturday Night Live. The documentary “Hot Coffee” was released several years ago and shared the details of the magnitude of Liebeck’s injuries and the resulting jury trial that awarded her $2.86 million dollars that was later slashed by the judge to $640,000.

Incorrect Information about Liebeck vs. McDonald’s– 20 Years Ago & Now

Public outrage at the verdict as being “excessively high” caused a stir among Americans and served as a symbol for groups arguing against “frivolous” lawsuits and in favor of tort reform. Surprisingly to many, those of us who are familiar with the details and facts of the Liebeck case see the verdict very differently for several reasons, and here is why:

  • McDonald’s was aware of the danger they were subjecting their customers. For marketing reasons, McDonald’s had made the decision to purposely market and sell their coffee at much higher temperatures (above 180 degrees F) than other restaurants. Liebeck’s counsel was able to show McDonald’s own engineers had warned that coffee should not be served at such high temperatures due to safety concerns. In addition to their own engineers’ warnings, Mcdonald’s had been put on notice of the danger in other ways. Specifically, prior to this incident, there had been over 700 reports of people being severely burned by coffee at this temperature. So, Liebeck’s allegation was not the first notice for McDonald’s–it was a problem they were made well aware of and yet, kept serving coffee at that temperature.
  • Injuries to the plaintiff were severe and permanent. Most of the public thought Liebeck was injured in a minor way–just a disruption to her day. But in fact, she was severely disfigured and had to have numerous surgeries. Liebeck suffered third-degree burns (the most severe type) on more than 6 percent of her skin. She remained in the hospital for over a week, where she underwent skin graft operations, two years of medical treatment, and even then, she never really fully recovered due to the extent of the burns.
  • McDonald’s refused to agree to any reasonable settlement. Contrary to popular opinion, Liebeck was apparently not trying to get rich; she simply wanted McDonald’s to cover her medical bills and loss of income. Before the lawsuit was filed, she asked McDonald’s for $20,000, and this was to cover $10,500 for past medical expenses, $2,500 in anticipated medical expenses, and $5,000 for her loss of income while recovering from surgery. McDonald’s responded with an offer of $800. After the lawsuit began, McDonald’s refused two offers to settle and drop the case for $90,000 and a pre-trial mediator’s suggestion to settle for $225,000. If McDonald’s had acted reasonably, the matter would never have gone to trial.

In light of the facts, it actually seems McDonald’s may have gotten off too lightly. As a major billion-dollar corporation, McDonald’s and other large restaurant chains have a responsibility to sell products that are safe for customers. Simply spilling a cup of coffee in your lap while trying to add sugar at the drive-through should NOT result in major burns and injuries. Yes, the common person is well aware that coffee is “hot”; however, do we really need to be served any beverage that causes third-degree burns when it comes into contact with the skin? Stella Liebeck endured pain the rest of her life and never recovered, and yet, she became a national joke. The media ran with the idea that Liebeck was a money-hungry plaintiff looking to get rich.

Implications of Hot Coffee on Jury Selection

When I do jury selection (gather 60-90 people in a room in order to get a 12-person panel), we talk about many things, and one thing comes up every single time in those discussions. The word and comments I always hear are “frivolous” and “how about that crazy woman who sued McDonald’s over the temperature of the coffee? Doesn’t everyone know that coffee is hot?” I’m continually amazed that many people have never learned the facts of the case, but they use that story to base so many of their opinions on lawsuits in general. In jury selection, it is not my role to explain the Liebeck v. McDonald’s case or the extent and horror of Liebeck’s injuries, but I find it very interesting that so many people have rooted their disdain for personal injury lawsuits from the limited information they have about the McDonald’s case.

What seems more ridiculous to me is how Mcdonald’s refused to reduce the temperature of their coffee after over 700 people were burned by it!! Baffling that McDonald’s refused to settle with one of the customers who was burned while consuming the product because McDonald’s purposely kept serving the coffee at such high levels even their own engineers advised against it.

In this recent lawsuit, I do not know the facts of the California woman’s case alleging that McDonald’s was careless in putting on the lid to her coffee that subsequently burned her. Paulette Carr in Van Nuys, California, alleges that she was burned in January of 2012 and is asking for monetary damages for medical expenses, lost wages, and loss of earning capacity. She is also asking for any future medical attention she may need to be covered financially.

Unfortunately, once a news story is out and circulated and when it has been sensationalized the way Stella Liebeck’s story was, it becomes very difficult to change or inform individuals of the truth. Many articles and even a documentary by HBO called “Hot Coffee” has not really changed the initial outcry of “ridiculous” that early reports started about the case. Do we really want to live in a society where “Buyer Beware” is the motto, or do we want to hold corporations to a standard of making safe products for us? What happened to Liebeck could have happened to any of us. How many of us have spilled a beverage we got in a drive-thru?

While most of my clients are victims of car accidents, truck accidents, or motorcycle accidents, they all have one thing in common–someone negligently hurt them through a decision or action. Fact patterns for most cases are multi-faceted, and no two cases are alike. If a person only hears portions of a case, as in a news report, it is easy to not have a full understanding. Thus, juries are critical. A jury of 12 people gets to hear all of the evidence, including witness testimony, victim’s testimony, and frequently expert testimony. Expert testimony may come in the form of surgeon testimony, accident reconstruction experts, or law enforcement, depending on the type of case. After hearing all evidence and testimony, the jury then gets to decide the verdict. It’s been my experience that a jury works very hard to be fair.

Misconceptions about lawsuits are frequently created by media who do not report ALL of the news. In fact, reporting all of the news about a case would take days, and news agencies only have seconds per story. Making judgments about a person or a lawsuit based on a few seconds or minutes of news is not fair, but it is a common problem. It is my hope that in the news coverage about this new McDonald’s lawsuit, more information will be shared about Stella Liebeck’s story of 20 years ago. Hopefully, after 20 years of scrutiny, more facts will be revealed, and Stella Liebeck will emerge as an individual who simply filed a suit to be compensated fairly and to influence a mega-billion dollar company to make a safer product.

It takes courage for an individual to go against a huge corporation for product liability, and the courtroom is the one place where an individual stands a chance. If you have been injured due to the negligence of another, you should not have to be embarrassed or ridiculed for asking for what is fair.

Our attorneys understand seeking fairness. We aggressively represent our clients to gain the compensation they deserve, and we do so in spite of the negative stereotypes common in our society. If you have questions about whether or not you have a case, you should take advantage of our free consultations. Not every car accident merits a personal injury claim, just like every slip and fall does not mean you deserve compensation–it is always dependent on the circumstances and your injuries. Whether you are in Missouri or Illinois, we can probably help. Call us at (314) 276-1681 to get started.

Zurko, R. McDonald’s Hot Coffee Lawsuit: Isn’t Coffee Usually Served Hot? 1/13/14

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The Cagle Law Firm serves accident and injury clients throughout St. Louis and the greater St. Louis metropolitan area, including the eastern Missouri and southern Illinois communities. If you or a loved one needs legal assistance with your personal injury case, call The Cagle Law Firm at (314) 276-1681 or use our online contact form to schedule a free consultation.

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