The truth about the infamous McDonalds hot coffee case

This article is liberal commentary.

In a perfect world, political parties would compete with ideas, candidates would debate issues, voters would make intelligent decisions, the best ideas and candidates would win, and our nation would prosper.

In the real world people are human, vote their selfish interests, and the party that represents corporate interests tends to lose to the party representing workers and consumers, because there are more of the latter. So the minority party resorts to gaming elections in various ways to obtain and keep power.

These “ways” include voter suppression, lies and disinformation, distracting voters from their real interests by waging “cultural wars,” demonizing and character assassination campaigns against opponents, and political dirty tricks. The result is toxic politics. This isn’t new; American politics have always been rowdy and dirty, but I won’t go into that here.

What does all this have to do with the infamous McDonalds hot coffee case, which has been promoted as a “poster boy” example of frivolous litigation (and therefore pointing out a need for “tort reform”)? Everything, because the story is disinformation, and there are political motives behind it. In fact, it’s pure politics.

There are two reasons why Republicans created a myth around Liebeck v. McDonalds. First, they want to protect businesses from lawsuits; second, “tort reform” seeks to deprive the Democratic Party of a major campaigning funding source by attacking the income of personal injury lawyers, who are a major Democratic donor group.

Today, it’s nearly impossible to find the original version of the once widely-circulated email that turned a real-life case into a false urban legend about a “runaway jury” that purportedly awarded millions of dollars to a greedy elderly woman who spilled coffee on herself while driving out of a McDonalds drive-through and suffered superficial burns. In reality:

  1. McDonalds served dangerously hot coffee (well above industry temperature standards) that had caused hundreds of injuries.
  2. McDonalds knew about the danger, but continued the practice, because it was profitable.
  3. The victim, Stella Liebeck, 79 (above), was a passenger, not the driver, and the car wasn’t moving when the hot coffee spilled in her lap.
  4. She suffered severe burns to her upper thighs that required multiple skin grafts (shown in the gruesome photo below).
  5. She only asked for her medical expenses, about $20,000, but McDonalds refused to pay more than $800.
  6. The initial jury award was $2.7 million, but the final settlement was much less.
  7. Most of that jury award was punitive damages, and the jury based the amount on one day’s profits from coffee sales at McDonald’s outlets in the United States.
  8. The judge reduced the total verdict to $640,000, of which $160,000 was compensatory damages and $480,000 was punitive damages, but McDonalds appealed, and Liebeck accepted a confidential settlement of “less than $600,000” according to Wikipedia.

In short, McDonalds was negligent, the victim was severely injured, and the settlement she ultimately received was fair and reasonable. For a summary of the myths and true facts of the case, click here.

The case isn’t a valid argument for “tort reform” at all, which is promoted with myths and fabricated stories (for a few examples, click here) to push for laws that would make it harder for legitimate victims to sue. Instead, it illustrates the need for critical thinking skills and fact-checking in the realm of politics.

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  1. Mark Adams #

    The original award was a very fair verdict. It amounted to one days worth of coffee sales for McDonald’s. The problem is in these situations the verdict or fines need to be substantial enough to make a company change behavior, otherwise it is business as usual. Republicans are business friendly, but so are many democrats. Washington has already done tort reform. It is virtually impossible for there to be punitive damages in this state. This affects suits against police and the towns and cities that hire them. Victims and their families can only get costs, and pain and suffering. If there were the possibility of punitive damages then perhaps there would be reforms of our police. Maybe firearms would not be our local police persons first go to. Maybe they would become more like British Bobbies.
    Democrats in this state have not as of yet reformed the reform. Maybe they should. Not holding my breath.

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