Her Name is Stella
by Brad Hendricks and Caroline C. Lewis
Many people believe that some woman got millions and millions of dollars for spilling hot coffee on herself.
That may sound good in a political ad against our legal system, but it simply is not true.
That never happened.
You are not alone.
Unfortunately, this case has become an urban myth deceitfully misrepresented in order to turn the general public against the legal system. It is the poster child often used to try to deny justice to those who need it most. The true story is one that cannot be told as a sound byte in a political ad.
Read on if you are interested in the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case that stands alone as probably one of the most misrepresented cases in modern legal history.
Some call it a frivolous lawsuit.
Others essentially blame the woman in question for the injuries she sustained, contending that the case represents nothing more than a prime example of human greed when presented with an opportunity to sue the “deep pockets” of McDonald’s.
Still others actually criticize the woman’s attorneys, holding them out as willing to file any case, no matter how frivolous, in order to make money. Mainly, though, it has been used by various corporate entities in support of legislation that would deprive you or a loved one of the constitutional right to have a jury of your peers determine the extent of your injuries and award damages accordingly.
The lady who had to bring this lawsuit is not “some woman.” Her name is Stella Liebeck, and these are the facts behind the lawsuit that so many people wrongly rely on to argue against the fundamental right that we all have to our day in court.
On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, then 79-years-old, went to a local McDonald’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with her grandson, Chris. Contrary to popular belief, when Stella and her grandson ordered that fateful cup of 49¢ coffee from the drive-thru menu, she was not attempting to multitask by driving while adding cream and sugar to her coffee. Instead, her grandson was in the driver’s seat. The car wasn’t moving, either. Chris had parked the car to give his grandmother the chance to flavor her coffee. Stella placed the 180-190°F cup of coffee between her knees, and removed the far side of the lid towards her. Despite her precautions, the coffee spilled directly into her lap.
That is not hot. That is scalding. Water boils at 212°F.
At the temperature the coffee was served to Stella, McDonald’s own quality assurance manager admitted, it is not fit for human consumption. Despite the knowledge, McDonald’s refused to change its policy and continued to serve coffee that it knew would cause injuries to its customers as served.
Thus, when Stella spilled that cup of coffee into her lap, the injuries that McDonald’s knew were likely to occur did, as the cotton sweatpants she was wearing immediately absorbed the scalding liquid and held it against Stella’s skin. A beverage that was served at temperatures that could cause third-degree burns in as little as two seconds was held by her clothing, trapped, for more than 90 seconds.
By the time Stella arrived at the hospital, her medical providers determined that she had, in fact, sustained third-degree burns to 6% of her skin, with burns of lesser degrees extending over 16% of her body, including her thighs, buttocks, her genitalia, and groin region. Over the next week, Stella remained in the hospital. She required excruciatingly painful skin grafts to try to repair the damage that had been done. She lost 20 pounds and dropped to a low of 83 pounds. At one point, her family was not sure she would even survive the incident.
That was merely the beginning, however. More than two years of medical treatment was required after Stella was released from the hospital.
What might shock you is that she did not try to settle for millions and millions of dollars in some attempt to extort money from McDonald’s. She tried to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000, which included medical expenses (and was far less than the $200,000 she was ultimately awarded for her medical expenses, injuries, and scarring), and McDonald’s refused. At that point, Stella hired Reed Morgan, a Houston attorney who offered to settle the case for $90,000 for Stella’s medical expenses and pain and suffering. McDonald’s, at that point, countered with an $800 offer.
In the face of such a ludicrous offer, Stella sued, claiming that the coffee was unreasonably dangerous and was distributed with inadequate warnings. Punitive damages were sought, as well, based on allegations that McDonald’s had shown conscious indifference for its customers and their safety.
What did the facts show during the August 8-17, 1994, trial that convinced a jury to turn on McDonald’s and award Stella damages, when they were initially irritated that they were being forced to hear what they believed was a supreme waste of their time?
First, McDonald’s required its franchisees to serve coffee between 180-190°F, when many of its competitors served coffee at temperatures no higher than 140°F.
Second, not only was McDonald’s coffee much hotter than other establishments’ coffee, it was hot enough to cause third-degree burns of such a severe nature that excruciatingly painful skin grafts might be warranted, and that it could do so in mere seconds. And McDonald’s knew that it was serving coffee that could inflict this type of damage. In fact, between 1982 and 1992, McDonald’s had received over 700 reports of burns attributed to its coffee. Even worse, McDonald’s representatives tried to hide the existence of these previous claims before they were finally forced to acknowledge their existence.
When McDonald’s finally did acknowledge the history of complaints, Christopher Appleton, the quality control manager for McDonald’s, admitted that McDonald’s coffee would burn the mouth and throat if consumed when served. Simply put, he testified, if a customer purchased a cup of coffee and drank it immediately, without waiting for it to cool, it would scald his or her mouth, throat, and esophagus.
So why did McDonald’s continue to serve a product it knew could seriously injure its customers?
According to the testimony presented during the trial, McDonald’s served its coffee so hot based on recommendations from the coffee industry that higher temperatures are necessary to extract the “full coffee flavor” during the brewing process. Thus, McDonald’s brewed its coffee between 195 to 205 degrees and held it at 180 to 190 degrees because, McDonald’s concluded, taste is of primary importance to its customers. Besides, McDonald’s customers want “steamy hot” coffee and expect to get it that way. Never mind the fact that McDonald’s customers had no way of knowing that third-degree burns could result from the coffee, or the fact that, by McDonald’s own testimony, the statement on the side of the cup was not a “warning.” It was just a “reminder” that did nothing to notify the customer of the dangers inherent in drinking the coffee at the temperature at which McDonald’s served.
Weakly, McDonald’s testified that its customers purchased coffee intending to only consume the beverage once the customer reached his or her final destination. Even this testimony, however, was contradicted by the company’s own research that indicated that customers intended to consume their coffee immediately after their purchase while they were still driving. Ultimately, McDonald’s placed a product it knew to be unfit for human consumption into the hands of people who purchased the product for immediate consumption, and severe injuries occurred. The risk of injury, including the severity of Stella’s injuries, could have been avoided by McDonald’s. McDonald’s knew the risk of injury existed, but it just did not care.
McDonald’s justified its disregard of the risks to the public by arguing that any food at temperatures exceeding 130°F presented a burn risk. McDonald had previously spent more than $500,000 settling prior claims related to its coffee. Despite the complaints and the injuries sustained by McDonald’s customers, Mr. Appleton testified, McDonald’s had more pressing things to worry about than its coffee.
McDonald’s placed great emphasis on the fact that 130°F food could cause third degree burns, but in reality, the difference is that the lower the temperature, the more time a customer has to avoid the injury. When the scalding coffee poured into her lap, the damage that ultimately required skin grafts and permanently injured Stella Liebeck was done in less than 3 seconds. If the coffee had been served at 160°F, she would have had nearly 20 seconds to avoid the third degree burns that she sustained. And that is still higher than the 130°F temperature that McDonald’s admitted presents a burn risk for other food items on its menu.
McDonald’s unilaterally decided that its customers wanted hot coffee (never mind the fact that they were unaware of the severity of injuries that might result), and that their desire for hot coffee outweighed the injuries sustained by some of its customers. The 700 people who were injured were absolutely inconsequential when McDonald’s considered the billions and billions of dollars it could make from serving excessively hot coffee.
The real insult in this case is that McDonald’s tried to place all the blame on Stella Liebeck. First, McDonald’s argued that Stella Liebeck should not have placed the coffee cub between her knees. Then, McDonald’s suggested that Stella should have simply removed her clothing promptly after the spill, ignoring the fact that she was sitting in the parking lot at a public location. Perhaps most horrifying, though, was the suggestion by McDonald’s that Stella’s age was to blame for the severity of her burns. In other words, her older skin made her more vulnerable to serious burns. It was her fault that she didn’t move fast enough, didn’t strip when she should, and that she was so old that her skin couldn’t withstand the heat.
There was no accountability on the part of McDonald’s. In the face of billions of cups of coffee sold each year, earning McDonald’s untold sums of money, Stella Liebeck did not matter. People like Stella Liebeck, according to McDonald’s human factors engineer, Dr. P. Robert Knoff, are “statistically insignificant” when McDonald’s considers its bottom line.
And here is how this case represents how justice was truly served in Stella’s Case:
When the jury was presented with the evidence, the jury awarded Stella $200,000 in compensatory damages; however, because the jury apportioned fault 80%-20% (finding Stella 20% at fault for her injuries), the award was reduced to $160,000. The jury also awarded Stella $2.7 million in punitive damages based on its determination that McDonald’s engaged in conduct that was willful, reckless, malicious, or wanton. This amount was based on McDonald’s revenues from coffee sales for two days.
Instead of a legislature arbitrarily reducing the amount awarded with no regard for the facts of any given case, though, as is one of the intended results of tort deform, the legal principle of remittitur was properly applied by the judge to the punitive damages award. “Remittitur” is a ruling by a court that reduces an award that either exceeds the amount sought by a party, or because the award is “otherwise considered excessive.”
In applying the principle of “remittitur,” the judge in Stella’s case reduced the award of punitive damages from $2.7 million to $480,000, or three times the compensatory damage award. The parties ultimately settled the case for an undisclosed amount believed to be less than $600,000, out of which Stella’s medical bills had to be paid—a far cry from the millions that so many claim she received when decrying Stella’s case as the poster child of frivolous lawsuits pursued by greedy lawyers out to make a buck, regardless of the merits of the lawsuits.
The mention of “frivolous lawsuit” raises another issue. In the legal system, what so many who throw that term about so freely in order to stir the public into a frenzy advocating tort deform is what actually happens to the frivolous lawsuit: the claims may be dismissed by the court and the attorney filing such claims may be sanctioned. However, there is no mechanism that will simply prevent one from filing a lawsuit. It’s one of the fundamental rights we have in this country that is guaranteed in our Constitution, and which has been vigorously defended throughout the history of our nation.
Truly, the judge is not supposed to simply evaluate the facts of a case and determine that it is frivolous if there is some chance that reasonable minds could conclude that the facts do actually have some merit. If one looks at the debate that has raged over this one case since it was handed down in 1994, it is easy to see that reasonable minds do, in fact, differ as to the merits of the lawsuit. When a lawsuit is truly frivolous, however, it is a pretty universally accepted conclusion that there is no merit at all to the claims presented before a court. There might be some minor disagreement, but such cases do not spark debates that span nearly 20 years and give rise to symbols in the arena of legal discussion that endure, even among those who are not member of the legal community.
Finally, justice was served here because it forced McDonald’s to stop “passing the buck” to its customers. Clearly, McDonald’s did not consider the 700 people who had been injured previously to be significant, but the injuries themselves were undoubtedly significant to the customer. Should a corporation be allowed to tell you that you are insignificant and that if you are injured by something the company does, knowing the potential harm that could result, it is just your problem??
Take out the jury system of determining the value of damages, the legal system’s checks that have been implemented to ensure that awards are not excessive, and the due process that is fundamentally guaranteed by our Constitution, and that is basically what occurs—the people least able to bear the cost are forced to do so by those in a much better position to protect the public.
That, no matter how you look at it, is not justice.
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