In the nearly 20 years since it occurred, there has been a lot written about the McDonald's coffee case. You know it: 79-year-old grandmother Stella Liebeck spilled her cup of McDonald's coffee, burned herself, sued and received a lot of money. The case has been cited repeatedly as the best example of a "frivolous lawsuit."
The truth, however, is that very few Americans know the real story of Stella Liebeck; why the case generated so much news coverage (and how it was funded); and how corporate special interests seized the case to advance a political agenda. That story is the focus of "Hot Coffee," a documentary that opened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and will air to a nationwide audience Monday on HBO.
Here are the facts in the case: Ms. Liebeck spilled a cup of coffee in her lap while sitting in her grandson's car. Unlike your coffeemaker at home, which brews coffee at 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, McDonald's corporate guidelines required stores to serve its coffee at a scalding 180 to 190 degrees. It was a well-known scientific fact that coffee at that temperature caused third-degree burns, where the skin is burned away down to fatty tissue, in just two to seven seconds. Liebeck received third-degree burns over 16 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, buttocks and genitals. Her treating physician testified that her injury was one of the worst scald burns he had ever seen.
Liebeck was hospitalized for eight days. Her burns required months of whirlpool treatments, debridement and skin grafts, and her recovery took more than two years. Despite months of pain and suffering, Liebeck was willing to settle the case for $20,000. Not only did McDonald's refuse, it never offered her more than $800.
In the court case that followed, McDonald's released documents which showed that it had known for a decade that its scalding coffee posed a serious burn risk to customers but did nothing to change company policy. From 1982 to 1992, more than 700 people were burned by the coffee. In one instance, a customer received third-degree burns similar to Liebeck's after a McDonald's employee dropped a cup of coffee in the woman's lap while passing it out of the drive-through window. The Shriner's Burn Institute in Cincinnati published warnings to fast-food franchises about the risks of serving beverages above 130 degrees. Despite this warning, McDonald's continued to sell scalding coffee.
McDonald's generates $475 million in annual coffee sales. That's about $1.3 million in coffee revenue a day. Its drive-through lanes are filled every morning across America with customers wanting hot coffee.
The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages, but this was reduced to $160,000, since jurors found that she was 20 percent at fault. The jury awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages because of McDonald's intentional conduct. The judge later reduced the punitive damage award to $480,000.
Why are these facts not known? That's the other subject tackled in the groundbreaking "Hot Coffee" documentary. Susan Saladoff, who produced and directed the film, exposes the multimillion-dollar corporate public relations campaign to spread urban myths about frivolous lawsuits.
There are even the "Stella Awards" given every year to outrageous lawsuits. The so-called frivolous award winners are fictional. The Internet website Snopes.com dedicates an entire page debunking the list of "fake" cases.
So who benefits from this scare tactic? Corporate front groups like the American Tort Reform Association and Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse have successfully promoted "tort reform" to address the ghost of frivolous lawsuits. Their goal is to modify the American jury trial system.
Trial by jury is our birthright. It is the means by which we hold our government accountable. It ensures that all men and women are equal under the rule of law and entitled to a redress for wrongs done by others. As John Adams once said about jury trials, "We have not envisioned a better fortification from being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle and fed like hounds." We stake our honor jealously safeguarding this truly American institution.
Ask your neighbor to name a frivolous lawsuit other than the McDonald's case. Then, watch "Hot Coffee" when it airs on HBO Monday and reach your own informed conclusion. Facts are stubborn things.