Remember the story about the lady who sued McDonald’s because she spilled coffee in her lap? It happened in the early 90s when I was about 10 so all I really remember is what my parents told me, which was basically that this crazy, money grubber is suing McDonald’s alleging the coffee was “too hot” and it “burned” her. “She sued McDonald’s for $30 million!” they’d say. I even remember making jokes about suing for no real reason. I mean. The coffee lady did it.
It wasn’t until this afternoon that I learned the real story behind the coffee lady and I will say, it opened my eyes. Shame on me for judging her. Poor 79-year-old Stella Leibeck did not deserve that.
Today I watched Hot Coffee, a documentary that happened to be more about Tort Reform than Ms. Leibeck. But… with that coffee lawsuit, she did start something pretty big. I thought it was going to be more about Stella’s story but it was sooo much more than that. Some called her case the “Poster child for Tort Reform.” The documentary answered more questions about Tort Reform than I could even fathom. At one point, I cried.
Here’s the story (as told by her family, various lawyers and other people involved directly with her case)
Stella was riding in a car with her nephew (who was driving). They stopped for coffee at McDonald’s and then parked so they could get situated and she could mix her creamer in her coffee before they hit the road. Stella started screaming and her nephew discovered she’d spilled the coffee in her lap and went to help her. The coffee was so hot (at least 10 degrees hotter than it is today), her skin was completely burnt and she had to have skin grafts. They showed the picture. It was awful (WARNING: Photos are graphic… if you decide to Google). I’ve spilled coffee on myself a number of times and have never been burned that bad. Not even close.
As part of the documentary, they asked random people on the street what they’d heard and their opinions on the case. Like me, most thought Stella’s story was a joke and this was frivolous lawsuit. Then they showed the picture of Stella’s scalded legs. Every person gasped. You could see the look of shame on their faces. About how I looked when I saw it on my TV screen.
First Stella asked McDonald’s to pay for her hospital bills and to make a coffee cup that had a more secure lid. They offered $800, which barely covers a hospital check-in process. McDonald’s had had about 700 cases (in the span over a year just before Stella’s suit) due to the coffee being too hot. Stella’s damage was too extensive. Her family convinced her to sue. The jury decided that the fault was 20% Stella’s for spilling the coffee and 80% McDonald’s for having such a high recommended “holding temperature”. The jury damages included $160,000 to cover medical expenses and compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. Stella never fully recovered from the burns and passed away 11 years later.
It was extremely sad circumstance, but today, coffee is served that hot at other places. Without holding the cup myself, I can’t say that it’s McDonald’s fault (if the cup was defective, QT ought-a take a look at their cups). Not that I feel sorry for McDonald’s, but had they simply paid (out of compassion) for Stella’s injuries, they wouldn’t have had to foot such a healthy sum of money.
Stella’s case spawned the beginning of a long battle about “frivolous lawsuits” and Tort Reform. If you don’t know what it is, read this. (I’m sure there are other sources on the internet, but this one most coincides with Hot Coffee.)