Liebeck v. McDonald’s (the “hot coffee case) was Not Frivolous—and Journalists Deserve Our Doubt

Contents

(A) The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case Was Not Frivolous
(B) Journalists Deserve Our Doubt

(A) The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case Was Not Frivolous

Liebeck v. McDonald’s[1] was not a frivolous case. Nevertheless, “[t]alk of a litigation-happy nation has become commonplace, with the usual set piece being the suit against McDonald’s brought by a person who spilled hot coffee on herself.”[2] Indeed, “the McDonald’s coffee case ha[d] stimulated disdain and mockery”[3] back when it was first reported in the early 90’s, and ever since has been “considered by the public to be frivolous in nature.”[4] Because of myopic and cynical journalists and legal pundits, Stella Lieback’s case, brought in good faith based on her horrible ordeal, “became the iconic example of all that is wrong with tort litigation, and . . . Stella Liebeck[] [became] the archetype of a phony victim.”[5]

Unfortunately for Stella’s memory and for all those interested in the truth about “the McDonald’s hot coffee case” that so many love to hate: “[t]he case continues to shape views about tort victims even though debunking facts have demonstrated that [Stella] Liebeck was far from a money-hungry swindler.”[6] Nevertheless, Stella’s plight is cited by more than few who caricature the badly burned grandmother’s case as an example for hysterical cynics to pretend that “[w]ithin tort reform discourse, the victim is the fully responsible immoral party, and the defendant requires protection from an irrational, even socialist, legal system set on violating the defendant’s rights in the name of redistribution.”[7]

Stella’s case against McDonald’s was not frivolous. Rather, during the case, the following facts arose:

(1) Stella, a 79-year-old grandmother, suffered third-degree burns over 6 percent of her body[8];

(2) Grandma Stella offered to settle her claim for $ 20,000 only[9]—to cover her hospital bills and loss of income;

(3) during discovery, McDonald’s produced documents of 700 burn complaints[10] (and during trial it was revealed that, in connection with those 700 complaints, McDonald’s had paid out about a half-million dollars[11]); and

(4) McDonald’s policy was to serve coffee at 185 degrees, about 50 degree hotter than normal coffee.[12]

Moreover, of the difference between “super hot” 180-degree coffee, vs coffee at normal temperatures (140-155), the following came out in Grandma Stella’s case against McDonald’s:

[A] scholar in thermodynamics applied to human skin burns, testified that liquids, at 180 degrees [i.e. the temperature at which McDonald’s served Stella her coffee], will cause a [serious] burn to human skin in two to seven seconds. Other testimony showed that as the temperature decreases toward 155 degrees, the extent of the burn relative to that temperature decreases exponentially. Thus, if Liebeck’s spill had involved coffee at 155 degrees, the liquid would have cooled and given her time to avoid a serious burn.[13]

Stella Liebeck’s case against McDonald’s was not about a careless, unprincipled woman: the case was about McDonald’s “behav[ing] callously in dealing with a little old lady who had been burned by its superheated coffee.”[14] And to preempt any ongoing instance of such callousness by the multi-billion-dollar behemoth McDonald’s—the kind of callousness that resulted in bad burns to least 701 people, including horribly burning a 79-year-old grandmother: the jury, on advice of Stella’s lawyer, decided penalized McDonald’s the value of just two days of its coffee sales—2.7 million dollars.[15] (And the judge then reduced that award by over 80%.[16])

(B) Journalists Deserve Our Doubt

When They “Summarize”—i.e., Typically Trivialize—Court Cases, journalists deserve our doubt.

Everywhere we look in this, our era on infotainment, we see authors succumbing to journalism’s two-part minimal standard for articles:

(1) does it sell (i.e. get attention)?

(2) if I lie massively about others to sell it, will the effrontery of Times v. Sullivan[17] shield me?

From there arises “clickbait culture,” including the gold-standard for seductive, defamatory journalism about a supposedly frivolous court case: the McDonald’s hot coffee case, brought by a 79-year-old woman named Stella, who was horribly burned and then horribly mistreated.

Far more than never, half-informed journalists aim not to inform but rather only to grab attention with seductive titles—and then, with content that is simply exaggerations and other lies, to create the anger or fear or confusion that keeps a reader’s dutifully raging attention. In this spirit, freelance writer Deborah Ng[18] included Liebeck v. McDonald’s in an article about “the top ten frivolous lawsuits.”[19]

Notes

1. Liebeck v. McDonald’s Rests., P.T.S., Inc., No. CV-93-02419, Lexis (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. 1994) (the “hot coffee” lawsuit).

2. James Steven Rogers, Restitution rollout: The restatement (third) of restitution & unjust enrichment: Indeterminacy and the law of restitution, 68 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 1377, 1389 (2011).

3. John Diamond, Rethinking compensation for mental distress: A critique of the restatement (third) §§ 45-47, 16 Va. J. Soc. Pol’y & L. 141, 141 (2008).

4. Michael P. Stone & Thomas J. Miceli, The impact of frivolous lawsuits on deterrence: Do they have some redeeming value?, 10 J.L. Econ. & Pol’y 301, 305 (2014).

5. Aya Grube, A distributive theory of criminal law, 52 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 1, 65 (2010).

6. Id.

7. Id. (emphasis added).

8. Aya Grube, A distributive theory of criminal law, 52 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 1, n. 400 (2010) (citing The ‘Lectric Law Library, From the ‘Lectric Law Library’s stacks: The actual facts about the Mc[D]onalds’ coffee case (n.d.), available at https://www.lectlaw.com/files/cur78.htm).

9. Id.

10. Id.

11. Lead Counsel Corner, Landmark Product’s Liability Case: Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants (LexisNexis, 2012).

12. Id.

13. The ‘Lectric Law Library, From the ‘Lectric Law Library’s stacks: The actual facts about the Mc[D]onalds’ coffee case (emphases added) (n.d.), available at https://www.lectlaw.com/files/cur78.htm)

14. Nadia E. Nedzel, The rule of law: Its history and meaning in common law, civil law, and Latin American judicial systems, 10 Rich. J. Global L. & Bus. 57, 74 (2010).

15. See Valerie P. Hans, The civil jury as a political institution symposium: What’s it worth? Jury damage awards as community judgments, 55 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 935, 946-47 (2014).

16. Id. at n. 65.

17. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964) (setting up a downright abusive legal standard for establishing libel against dishonest journalists).

18. See nDash, Deborah Ng (n.d.), available at https://go.ndash.co/public/writer/profile/5ac0f600d5cd0c0fc20cbc92.

19. Deborah Ng, Top ten frivolous lawsuits (Legal Zoom, 2020) (frivolous journalism about supposedly frivolous court cases), available at https://www.legalzoom.com/articles/top-ten-frivolous-lawsuits.

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