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A particular headline grabbed my attention today:

 “L.A. Women Sues McDonald’s Over Hot Coffee, 20 Years After Huge Verdict”

I wanted to take this opportunity to revisit the case that it references, for those who may be unaware of its importance to our legal system.

More than twenty years ago, then 79-year-old Stella Liebeck sued McDonald’s after spilling a cup of their coffee into her lap.  The story quickly became fodder for late-night talk show hosts and served as easy evidence for those who believe that most lawsuits are frivolous.  The public quickly formed opinions—she shouldn’t have been driving and trying to open her coffee; she did it purposefully so that she could sue McDonald’s; plain and simple, it was her fault—she shouldn’t sue the company for something that was her fault.

Even decades later, the case has taken become a part of our culture, after hundreds of references on t.v. shows, and even the Toby Keith song, “American Ride”:

 “Plasma getting bigger, Jesus gettin’ smaller/

 Spill a cup of coffee, make a million dollars”

The reality?

Stella Liebeck was a passenger in her grandson’s car—she wasn’t driving.  HE wasn’t even driving.  He had pulled over to allow her to open her cup, and when she pulled the lid to open it, the coffee spilled into her lap, causing third degree burns (the photo proof of which, if you haven’t seen it, is horrific).  When Liebeck tried to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000 to cover her medial expenses, the company offered her $800.

Let me repeat that—McDonald’s offered a 79-year-old woman who suffered extensive burns caused by a flaw in their product eight hundred dollars.

While Liebeck did spill the coffee in her own lap (and was assigned a proportionate part of the blame, per the jury), McDonald’s was found to have kept their coffee at a temperature that far exceeded what it should have been.  Thankfully, Liebeck’s legal team helped her win a large verdict against McDonald’s.

And yet—the jokes still came.

This is the disastrous effect of tort reform.  Large corporations have made it a point to skew the media’s perceptions of legitimate cases (and by default, the perceptions of the American public).  We have to push for a justice system that allows the ordinary American to sue the largest of corporations, if there is a legitimate reason to do so.  To support any efforts to place further restrictions on our civil liberties is irresponsible, and unconscionable.

For those who want to learn more, I recommend you watch Susan Saladoff’s award-winning documentary, “Hot Coffee”.


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Headline Image Source: (CC BY-SA 3.0) Wikipedia/Ragesoss


  1. Gravatar for Nathaniel Fick

    Susan Saladoff's award winning documentary "Hot Coffee" should be required viewing - Civics 101 - for every family.

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