By: Winnie Liang, Grade 11
On February 27, 1992, a seventy-nine-year-old woman named Stella Liebeck was sitting in her nephew’s car in a McDonald’s drive-thru trying to add some cream and sugar to her cup of coffee. She placed the coffee between her thighs and tried to pull the lid off. However, this forty-nine-cent cup of scalding coffee spilled all over her lap. Ms. Liebeck, who was wearing cotton sweatpants at the time, suffered from third-degree burns (the most serious kind of burn) on six percent of her skin and milder burns over another sixteen percent. In merely eight days of skin grafting after the incident, her body weight had reduced from over 100 pounds to 83 pounds. Furthermore, this poor woman had to receive medical treatment in the two years that followed. Still, she never fully recovered from her injuries.
Although there were at least 700 previous reported cases of injuries caused by the scalding coffee at McDonald’s before Ms. Liebeck’s unfortunate incident, the fast-food giant knew it had a serious problem this time. Despite the Shriner Burn Institute’s forewarning to not serve coffee above 130 degrees Fahrenheit, McDonald’s restaurants had always been served their coffee at about 190 degrees. They never considered consulting with a burn specialist. When Ms. Liebeck filed a lawsuit against this corporate giant, which took in revenue of $1.35 million per day from coffee sales at the time, all her attempts to settle out of court were refused. Apparently, McDonald’s wanted to take its chances in court. Its defense was that Ms. Liebeck was personally responsible for her severe injuries because she was the one who placed the hot coffee between her legs and failed to remove her clothing immediately. More ridiculously, it said that Ms. Liebeck’s old-aged, thin, sensitive skin was also to blame for the severity of the burns. In the end, she was awarded $200,000 dollars in compensation, though that amount was later reduced by 20% to $160,000, because the jury felt that she was still partially responsible for the accident. Moreover, the jury decided on punitive damages of 2.7 million dollars (only two days’ revenue from coffee sales) for McDonald’s as a punishment and a deterrent of further bad conduct. However, this amount was reduced by the jury to $480,000.
But it wasn’t over yet. Stella Liebeck’s scorching-coffee case had an unfortunate side effect of being seen in public as a frivolous lawsuit, and it was twisted by McDonald’s, using millions of dollars, to use it to promote tort reform. Such “reform” is aimed to reduce the numbers of litigations and damages in tort (which is a system for compensating wrongs done to one party by another). On January 20, 2011, a tort reform bill was passed in the Wisconsin Senate. This measure was largely praised by the business community. Back in 2005, former U.S. President George W. Bush made tort reform a centerpiece of his successful run. Bush’s argument was simple: he claimed that the costs of settling “junk lawsuits” similar to Stella Liebeck’s could hurt the country’s economy. Ever since then, tort “reform” has been a contentious political issue. As a matter of fact, the amount of compensation awards in personal injury cases declined by 56.3 percent from 1992 to 2001. On the other hand, a study had proven businesses file four times as many lawsuits as the consumers. For average Joes, it certainly is something that limits their ability to hold corporations accountable for their misdeeds; that is unquestionably going against the principles of a free society.