You know the one, right? Some lady was driving after buying some McDonald’s coffee and carelessly spilled it on herself. Then, instead of taking responsibility for her actions, she got mad over a few minor burns and decided to frivolously sue McD’s to see how much money she could get. She actually managed to extort millions of dollars from them! File this one under prime example A for why we need tort reform, amirite?
Dead fucking wrong.
The description above is one that you’ve probably heard before. The case is Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, but it’s commonly known as the “hot coffee lawsuit.” But what you might not realize is that the most common perceptions of the case are built on lies, myths, and general confusion after a successful campaign by those (frequently but not always conservatives) in favor of tort reform. Here are some facts of the case:
– The woman was 79 years old.
– She was not the driver.
– The car was not moving, as her nephew had parked for her to add cream and sugar to the coffee.
– When she opened the lid, she spilled the contents of the cup into her lap.
– The coffee absorbed into her sweatpants, causing 3rd degree burns.
– She had to be in the hospital for 8 days and underwent skin grafting, followed by two years of medical treatment.
– Liebeck sued McDonald’s for $20,000, not for millions.
So, do those facts change your opinion? They make her a lot more sympathetic, don’t they? She wasn’t some lady who suffered minor burns while driving and decided this was an opportunity to score millions, but was an old woman who suffered extensive burns in her thighs and groin that required expensive medical treatment. Still, you might think that this is all her fault, and that – unfortunate though this may be – why should McDonald’s have to pay anything?
The answer to that question is a big reason why she won the case. McDonald’s would serve their coffee at 180-190 degrees (212 is boiling FYI). Most other restaurants and commercial coffee makers will produce coffee at 140 degrees. The argument was that the extra 40-50 degrees can cause a lot more damage in the amount of time the coffee remains in contact with the skin. Furthermore, in the 10 years prior to Liebeck’s accident, McDonald’s received over 700 complaints from people burned by the coffee, in many cases resulting in settlements, but did not change their practices despite these warnings. The jury decided that McD’s was 80% at fault and Liebeck 20%, and awarded her compensatory damages in excess of her medical bills. However, the $2.7 million came from punitive damages.
Ultimately, the judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, but the parties settled for an amount believed to be far less than that. It’s amazing to me that the tort reformers have been so successful in taking this case and turning into the caricature I described above. For my part, I once used to believe the myth for a while, and learned about the details a couple years ago. I had forgotten about it since then, but the topic is resurfacing as people in the blogosphere are picking up on a new documentary called Hot Coffee based mostly on this incident.
I’ll leave the more technical lawyerly sort of analysis for Stendhal, but in general I’m much less inclined to favor tort reform than I once was. Tort reform usually means award ceilings, but those caps can be arbitrary and force the jury to make awards that aren’t really based on the facts of the case. Furthermore (and this is the Berkeley hippie in me talking), it seems obvious to me that the forces most in favor of tort reform are powerful corporations who want to ensure that they are forced to hand over as little of their money as possible to their puny customers, no matter how much harm they cause and how much at fault they are.