With former trial lawyer John Edwards now officially the Democratic nominee for Vice President, expect the wingers to officially link the Democratic ticket to those "outrageous" frivolous lawsuits. We've all heard about so-called frivolous lawsuits, of which the most "infamous" is the case of the woman who sued McDonald's because its coffee was too hot.
Thanks to paragons of "objective" reporting like John Stossel, the McDonald's coffee lawsuit supposedly exemplifies everything that's wrong with American civil justice. A woman stupidly spills a little coffee, the story goes, and instead of daubing the coffee off her clothes and getting on with life, she gets a couple million dollars by suing McDonald's.
If it hadn't been so widely reported back in the early 1990's, it would be easy to assume the McDonald's coffee case was an urban myth. The fact that McDonald's lost a lawsuit filed by a woman who spilled coffee on herself is in fact true. But just about everything else you've probably heard is wrong or grossly incomplete, and you can bet that whatever comes out of the right wing noise machine will perpetuate the falsehoods about the case.
First of all, it's important to attach a name to the case. Stella Liebeck was an 81 year old retired retail clerk who spilled coffee while at the drive-through window of an McDonald's in Albuquerque, NM. If you still think that's not much of a reason to bring a suit against McDonalds, you're not alone; according to 1994 article from the Wall Street Journal, the members of the jury felt the same way:
At the beginning of the trial, jury foreman Jerry Goens says he "wasn't convinced as to why I needed to be there to settle a coffee spill."
At that point, Mr. Goens and the other jurors knew only the basic facts: that two years earlier, Stella Liebeck had bought a 49-cent cup of coffee at the drive-in window of an Albuquerque McDonald's, and while removing the lid to add cream and sugar had spilled it, causing third-degree burns of the groin, inner thighs and buttocks. Her suit, filed in state court in Albuquerque, claimed the coffee was "defective" because it was so hot.
What the jury didn't realize initially was the severity of her burns. Told during the trial of Mrs. Liebeck's seven days in the hospital and her skin grafts, and shown gruesome photographs, jurors began taking the matter more seriously.
Over the previous decade McDonald's had received over 700 complaints about its coffee scalding people, including babies. They had settled all lawsuits out of court, with some payments as high as $500,000. But McDonald's continued to serve its coffee 20 degrees hotter than any other major restaurant chain.
Stella Liebeck hadn't originally planned on going to a jury trial. She had asked for compensatory damages to pay for her skin grafts, but McDonald's offered only $800. By the end of the trial, however, the jury was convinced that she was entitled $200,000 compensatory damages for her medical costs, which they reduced by $40,000 because she was partially to blame for having spilled the coffee.
What got the attention, however, was the punitive damages of $2.7 million, equal at the time to 2 days worth of McDonalds's coffee sales. Remember, this decision was made in light of the fact that McDonald's had long known that its coffee, served 20 degrees hotter than the industry standard, had resulted in hundreds of presumably avoidable second and third degree burns. But even after all of that, the judge still reduced the punitive award to $480,000--a sizeable sum, but one awarded to an 81 year old plaintiff only because McDonald's was partially to blame for her suffering third degree burns throughout her groin because McDonalds persisted, despite knowing it had caused hundreds of scaldings, in serving coffee that it knew was extremely dangerous.
So, if you hear people drone on about how John Edwards is on the side of those shark trial lawyers who file frivolous lawsuits like that one against McDonald's because its coffee was too hot, tell them the name Stella Liebeck. Tell them that 81 year old Stella Liebeck suffered third degree burns and incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical costs for the grafts she needed to repair the skin on her groin, inner thighs and butt. Tell them that Stella Liebeck just wanted McDonald's to pay for the damage they had caused, but McDonald's only offered her $800 for $200,000 worth of medical bills. Tell them that prior to Stella Liebeck's scalding McDonald's had already heard about over 700 cases of people being seriously burned by their coffee, but they continued to serve it 20 degrees hotter than any other major restaurant chain. And ask them, if they were Stella Liebeck, or Stella Liebeck was their wife or mother or neighbor, who do they think would be more sympathetic to their modest demand that a major corporation live up to its responsibilities, John Edwards or Dick Cheney?
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