Many prominent conservatives claim that rampant lawsuits are destroying America. I’m here to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. Our founding fathers created this country with the idea that we could air our legal grievances to the audience of juries. They understood the value of the jury system; the value of a citizen’s ability to bring a lawsuit for harm caused to him and have a jury of his peers listen to it and determine its worth.
The “million dollar” McDonald’s coffee lawsuit became the rallying cry for conservatives to say “this is too much – something needs to be done.” But those who are making the argument either don’t actually know the facts of the case or do and are part of the big business machine that doesn’t give a crap about the little man in America. Let’s examine briefly the facts of that case:
THE ACCIDENT AND INJURIES
– In 1994, Stella Liebeck, a 79 year-old grandmother and her grandson went through a McDonald’s drive through and ordered coffee. In attempting to put creamer in her coffee, she put the cup between her knees and pulled the lid towards her which accidentally dumped the entire cup of coffee in her lap. The coffee had been heated to over 180 degrees and caused third degree burns on her thighs and groin which required skin grafts. Ms. Liebeck was in the hospital for 8 days and incurred over $10,000 in medical bills.
HIRING A PERSONAL INJURY ATTORNEY
Ms. Liebeck hired an attorney who tried to settle the case with McDonalds for $20,000.00 but McDonalds refused. Investigation into the case showed that McDonalds ordered its franchisees to heat the coffee to between 180 and 190 degrees which can cause 3rd degree burns in mere seconds. Investigators also learned that McDonalds had received numerous complaints about the excessive heat of the coffee and had settled many of them out of court. Despite court ordered mediation, McDonald’s refused to offer more than $800 to Ms. Liebeck for her injuries.
THE JURY’S VERDICT
Faced with that option, Ms. Liebeck and her lawyers had no choice but to take the case to trial. The jury, after hearing the evidence of McDonald’s knowledge of the danger posed by the heat of the coffee and McDonald’s failure to do anything about it, found for Ms. Liebeck. They awarded her $160,000.00 in compensatory damages (damages meant to compensate her for her injuries) and $2.7 million dollars in punitive damages because they believed that McDonalds showed a conscious disregard for the safety of their patrons by continuing to serve boiling hot coffee after multiple complaints that it was too hot. The trial judge ultimately cut the jury’s verdict down to about $640,000 and the parties settled thereafter for an amount presumed to be less than $600,000.00
Conservative pundits looked at the case as a call for tort reform. I see it as the rallying cry for the little guy. How dare McDonald’s or any corporation for that matter put a product on the market that they know to be dangerous. Thank God for folks like Ms. Liebeck who had the courage to take on the big corporations and stand up for themselves. Her victory resulted in McDonald’s lowering the temperature of its coffee because now the potential losses due to accidents exceeded the cost of making the change.