The Myth of Frivolous Lawsuits, Part I: “Hot Coffee”

If you were alive in the 1990’s you might have heard the term “frivolous lawsuit” bandied about in the media. Stories were widely circulated of greedy plaintiffs who were demanding huge sums of money over petty issues, costing innocent business owners and doctors their livelihoods and destroying the very fabric of our society.

These stories were fuel to fire the tort reform movement, a massive lobbying effort supported by major corporations, the healthcare industry and the insurance industry to limit their accountability by denying people the right to sue.

The problem is, most of these stories greatly distorted the truth, left out critical details of the case or were even complete fabrications.


The Million Dollar McDonald’s Coffee Lawsuit

You’ve probably heard the story of a clumsy woman who spilled coffee on herself while driving and demanded $2 million from McDonald’s due to minor burns.

The story was widely reported in the news, with talk-radio hosts expressing outrage, and even parodied in the popular sitcom Seinfeld. It was the most notorious example of frivolous lawsuits run amok.

However, when you review the actual facts of the case and how it developed, it becomes readily apparent that it was not frivolous in the least.


Liebeck v. McDonald’s

Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman, suffered third-degree burns (the most severe kind) on her pelvic region, after spilling coffee on herself while sitting in the passenger seat of a car in McDonald’s parking lot. She was hospitalized for eight days, required skin grafts and was partially disabled for two years.

She initially sought only to cover her medical expenses, future medical costs, and her daughter’s lost income (who watched over her for three weeks after the injury), which totaled around $20,000. In response to her claim, McDonald’s offered only $800 and refused to raise it.

Unable to pay her medical costs, she hired an attorney, who accused the company of gross negligence, and sued in New Mexico District Court. The lawyer offered settlement amounts from $90,000 to $300,000 in pre-trial mediation, but McDonald’s refused every offer.

During the trial, it was discovered that the coffee was served at over 180 degrees Fahrenheit, which experts agreed could cause third-degree burns in as little as two seconds. Not only this, but McDonald’s had received over 700 reports of people being burned by their coffee in the previous decade and had settled for over a half a million dollars.

The jury ruled in Liebeck’s favor, but still assigned her 20% of the fault. She was awarded $200,000 in compensation, which was lowered to $160,000 after her fault contribution was deducted. She also received $2.7 million in punitive damages, intended to discourage McDonald’s from their gross negligent behavior. A judge later reduced that amount to $480,000, and the parties finally settled for an undisclosed amount.


Tort System Remains Fundamental

The way this case was reported in the news completely left out the details and trivialized the severity of Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries. It became fodder for tort reformers, who used the public perception of “greedy lawyers” and frivolous lawsuits to attack people’s fundamental right to sue.

The legacy of this movement is still felt today as people’s perception of the tort system is skewed by these popular, but inaccurate stories. Meanwhile, the tort reform movement has evolved into a forced arbitration movement, seeking to completely strip people’s right to sue in court by slipping clauses into the fine print of contracts.

Just as in Liebeck v. McDonald’s, the majority of people who sue for injury claims have suffered severe injuries due to another party’s negligence, and often seek an attorney when their medical expenses exceed their ability to pay. The tort system gives victims a venue to redress their grievances, and is a fundamental right in our justice system.

This is part one of a three part series. Read part two, “The Phone Booth.”