Saturday, September 08, 2007

McDonald's Coffee and the Tort Reform Case

I was just having a discussion with a conservative contact about if and why the American Middle Class is eroding.

My acquaintance fell back on the argument of "Tort Reform".
  1. "Liberal Judges, " wrote my friend, "now use their bench to rule against
    big corporations in stupid lawsuits to the tune of millions of dollars, and it's
    no wonder companies are going out of business or moving out of the country.

    When some dumbass woman gets awarded (it's been appealed) millions of
    dollars because she:

    a. voluntarily bought McDonald's coffee
    b. set
    it on her dashboard above the steering wheel
    c. engaged the transmission and
    sped off
    d. dumped hot coffee on her lap, through no fault of McDonalds

    ...then it's no wonder we're losing what you say is the middle class. I read
    an article that said Tort reform would do more to return good, high paying jobs
    to America than any other thing."

I have to admit that the McDonald's coffee case of 1992 had always stuck me as the best argument against "frivolous" lawsuits. And it's certainly hit home with many Americans...becoming a part of our ideological landscape (for example, I had forgotten that the case was almost 20 years old...it still feels fresh.)

But in discussing the issue with my contact, I decided to go to Wikipedia and bone up on the case (because this is not a scholarly forum, I didn't feel the need to seek a more authoritative source, but they can be found in the reference section of this wikipedia article.)

It is at:

Like my corrispondent, I had always assumed (for no good reason) certain facts about the case.

I'd always thought that:
1) The woman was young.
2) That the woman was actually driving
3) That the woman was doing something inherently stupid and unsafe (such as the detail that my conservative friend adds in his email about the coffee being on the dashboard...where did THAT come from?)

Here are the facts of the case as outlined by wikipedia:

Background of the case
On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, ordered a 49-cent cup of coffee from the drive-thru of a local McDonald's restaurant. Liebeck was in the passenger's seat of her Ford Probe, and her grandson Chris parked the car so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. She placed the coffee cup between her knees and pulled the far side of the lid toward her to remove it. In the process, she spilled the entire cup of coffee on her lap.[7]

Liebeck was wearing cotton sweatpants; they absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin as she sat in the puddle of hot liquid for over 90 seconds, scalding her thighs, buttocks, and groin.[8] Liebeck was taken to the hospital, where it was determined that she had suffered third-degree burns on six percent of her skin and lesser burns over sixteen percent.[9] She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent skin grafting. Two years of treatment followed.

Attempts to settle
Liebeck sought to settle with McDonald's for US$20,000 to cover her medical costs, which were $11,000, but the company offered only $800. When McDonald's refused to raise its offer, Liebeck retained Texas attorney Reed Morgan. Morgan filed suit in a New Mexico District Court accusing McDonald's of "gross negligence" for selling coffee that was "unreasonably dangerous" and "defectively manufactured." McDonald's refused Morgan's offer to settle for $90,000.[4]

Morgan offered to settle for $300,000, and a mediator suggested $225,000 just before trial, but McDonald's refused these final pre-trial attempts to settle.[4]

McDonald's refused to settle perhaps because, though there had been numerous lawsuits alleging that hot coffee was "defectively manufactured," courts had consistently dismissed the cases before trial on the grounds that coffee burns were an open and obvious danger.

Upon closer reflection, it becomes kind of an eyeopener, huh?

Perhaps Republicans are really so set on "Tort Reform" because most tort lawyers tend to give money to the Democratic Party? Could that be it? Hmmmmm.


Anonymous said...

Great post....I have written a paper on the civil justice system and the media's impact on it. The paper includes the full story of the McDonalds coffee including a few bits and pieces from the litigation which will make anyone very surprised.

The paper is found at: http://www.okccps.org/okccps.site/images/Media%20Influence%20on%20Civil%20Justice%20System.pdf

There are other resources on our website found at:

Dave said...

I believe that McDonald's had several hundred reports of scalding hot coffee before this incident and did nothing about it. This case is actually what the civil justice system is about.


Anonymous said...

First, I am curious as to why you believe that Middle Class America is eroding. I have never found any strong evidence to support this.

Second, I know for a fact that many Republican (not all Republicans support tort reform) support tort reform becuase they are extremely pro-business and want to see business have a chance to succeed.

Third, I think tort lawyers have been giving to Democrats more because they support tort...no the other way around.

But good post and it looks like you have a decent blog (first time visitor just looking around).

-Chris Richey
chris *at* christopherrichey *dot* com

Nick said...

There are a few important things I need to outline for and note about the incident that took place:

- The woman and elderly (79 years old) and was NOT driving, her grandson was driving the unknown year, Ford Probe

- They pulled into a parking place and parked. This means that they were not in motion when Liebeck pulled the top off of the cup and spilled it over her thighs, buttocks, and groin, and presumed - leather interior of the Ford Probe

- She sat in the scolding (franchise regulated) 180-190 degrees F coffee for 90 seconds.

It must be noted that we do not know the year of the car, and little can be established regarding the civil justice system LET ALONE the erosion of the middle class without the knowledge of which car was made in! We can't proceed without knowing the facts; Wikipedia sheds no light on this subject nor do any of the private articles easily accessible by a Google search. The incident ocured on February 27, 1992. One would assume that the year number was a '92 or below. I sat wondering last year (of 2006) this issue of the year of the Probe, pouring over court documents, trying to figure out which vehicle the grandson and elderly lady were sitting in, until to my dismay - I viewed a commercial that the not yet possible 2007 Camery was now available for purchase! This is not possible, for the year for 2006! How could a Camery from 2007 be released in 2006! I concluded that Toyota was lieing about the availability of the Camery and that they would claim "unforseen problems" when transporting the vehicles to the dealerships which would CONVENIENTLY allow the 2007 model not sold..AKA created until 2007.

This made sense and satisfied the momentary conclusion until stumbled upon, and uncovered the truth.The date being May 26, 2006 - I found a picture of a man standing next to 2007 Camery Hybrid at its unveileing. This led me to undeniable conclusion that the 2007 Toyota Camry had traveled BACK IN TIME to 2006, for what reason? I don't know but right now we have NO IDEA what year that Ford Probe that Stella Liebeck sat in, was. Formerly we would assume that the apple could not come before the apple tree, that the chicken come out of the egg...but now, NOW it is obvious that the chicken did not need hatch from the egg, but could have easily TRAVELED THROUGH TIME to the past before she was born, laid the egg, and given birth to herself.

Likewise, there no is no reason not to believe that on the fateful day of 1992, Ms. Liebeck was not at that time sitting in a fully functional 1997, converted Lamborghini door, Chromed out Ford Probe.

View: http://www.wickedbodies.net/VDC-pics/vertical%20doors-%2093-97%20probe.jpg

Case in Point, Ms. Liebeck was sitting in a vehicle that did not exist yet, and somehow Ford has been able to create technology that allows its cars to break through the space time continuum. It was not the Coffee, it was not Ms. Liebecks negligance, it was all Ford's fault.

Alex said...


As to the vanishing middle class in America....I can see that I probably should do a post on that at some point...not that I'm necessarily right about it...but at least it give something more concrete to argue about.

Thanks for the comments.

Anonymous said...

I've read a little about the case, and while I agree that there is some validity to Stella's claim based on the extreme temperature of the coffee, there are two aspects of the facts that I believe attention. The first is that she put the cup between her legs and attempted to pull off the lid. I cannot be the only person who has had trouble with this and spilled. Certainly when one has a hot liquid between one's legs, additional caution should be used. Secondly, the facts state that she sat in the coffee for 90 seconds. Why didn't she move during that minute and a half? Certainly she should have moved. Any suggestion otherwise is absurd as who willingly sits and doesn't move in that situation? I guess I think she bears more responsibility than she was held accountable for, but I do think that McDonald's should have just settled for the medical bills and a little extra.

Unknown said...

if mcdonalds was cool they would start serving like room temperature coffee and put in ads that shes the one that "saved" them from hot coffee and that its her fault its cold.