Spilled Coffee? Lawsuit or Joke?

The documentary movie “Hot Coffee” became very controversial and popular in St. Louis, Missouri. The film sheds light on the true events of the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit and several other families’ lives that have been changed due to tort reform. Since the McDonald’s lawsuit, the movie and many articles discuss the amount of money corporations have spent on putting the “right spin” to stories to make the lawsuits seem frivolous, and attorneys seem like opportunists. However, there are many facts of the McDonald’s hot coffee case that never made the David Letterman list even though the case topic did. Facts:

  • A 79-year-old woman suffered severe burns over 16% of her body, spent eight days in the hospital, and underwent very painful procedures to remove layers of dead skin and several skin graft operations. She never fully recovered.
  • The coffee spilled on the woman’s lap was a temperature between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit. If spilled on the skin, it can cause third-degree burns in as little as 2 seconds. Coffee generally brewed at home is between 120 and 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • During trial discovery, the plaintiff’s attorney discovered over 700 reports on file with McDonald’s of similar injuries between 1982 and 1992. Some of the complaints advised of third-degree burns caused by McDonald’s superheated coffee; however, McDonald’s did not decrease the temperature of their coffee until after the lawsuit was filed. (Coalition Against No-Fault in BC)

These are just some of the points of evidence in the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit, yet they were not publicized like the concept of “silliness” and “frivolousness” that was re-enforced by comics and late-night television hosts.

Why was there such a gross miscommunication of the facts? Why was the elderly woman projected as filing a frivolous suit? After the accident, the woman offered to settle her claim for $20,000 just to cover her medical bills. However, McDonald’s refused. While the ultimate settlement was confidential, the jury originally awarded the woman $200,000 in compensatory damages, but the sum was reduced to $160,000 because it was ascertained that she was 20% at fault. The jury awards her $2.7 million in punitive damages, which totaled about two days of McDonald’s coffee sales. The judge then reduced the $2.7 million to $480,000. Rather than go through an appeal, the parties reached a confidential settlement with a non-disclosed settlement amount, according to Case Reviews.

The movie “Hot Coffee” shares information about how much money corporations spend to promote the cause of tort reform. According to a brief about “Hot Coffee” directed by Susan Saladoff, the “famous McDonald’s coffee case has become emblematic of the frivolous lawsuits that clog our courts and stall our justice system. Or is that what McDonald’s wants us to think? Big business has brewed an insidious concoction of manipulation and lie to protect its interests, and media lapdogs have stirred the cup”. Saladoff further stated, “There has been a huge public relations campaigning over the last 25 years to convince the public that we have too many frivolous lawsuits, that we have out-of-control juries, that we need to change our civil justice system, which is our third branch of government, where an average person can go head-to-head with the rich and powerful, with corporations. And people have a completely distorted view of our civil justice system because of this public relations campaign. And I wanted to tell the truth. I wanted people to understand that they were giving up their constitutional rights every day to access the courts, and they didn’t even know they were doing it.”

Certainly, if the woman burned by McDonald’s hot coffee were your loved one, you would want an avenue to regain medical bills and suffering.

This author will be watching “Hot Coffee” when it premiers to see the evidence portrayed. Tort reform is not advantageous to the victims of accidents, only big business. Businesses should be liable for faulty products or mislabeling of product use. Product liability is not as evident as a car crash and not as common; rather, it is not portrayed in the news other than an occasional recall announcement. It seems to take a tragedy such as the McDonald’s coffee case to generate media coverage, and then, one has to wonder about objectivity.

Personal injury due to a faulty product is an area of specialty for The Cagle Law Firm. Zane T. Cagle has much experience with investigations into accidents that occur due to faulty products. Companies must be responsible for the products they produce, and they must market their use in a proper, safe manner. If you have been the victim of a faulty product, do not let the public relations of large corporations make you believe you must suffer the injuries on your own. Call Zane T. Cagle of The Cagle Law Firm today for your free consultation at (314) 276-1681.

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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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