Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search

It's the
Icon law.svg
To punish
and protect
Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants
1994 Extra LEXIS 23 (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. 1994), 1995 WL 360309 (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. 1994)
Decided: 1994

Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, more popularly known as the McDonald's coffee lawsuit, is often considered a textbook example of a frivolous lawsuit. After ordering a coffee from McDonald's, a woman recklessly places the hot drink in her lap and drives off. After it inevitably spills onto her lap, she brazenly sues the restaurant for millions. Can you believe her audacity?

Well, you shouldn't, because that's not what actually happened.

Issues with that narrative[edit]

First off, the woman, Stella Liebeck, was in a parked car at the time of the spill.[1] She also never attempted to sue McDonalds for millions of dollars, instead she simply wanted the company to help pay her medical bills, which were around twenty thousand dollars.[2]

The results of the lawsuit are yet another thing that has been hyperbolized by those critical of the case. Again, Stella was only interested in having McDonalds pay her medical bills and did not desire to make a profit off of this incident. Although the judge did say that Stella could get as much as nearly three million dollars, she ended up settling for less than six hundred thousand and an understanding that McDonalds would make its coffee less hot in order to insure such a situation would never occur again.[2]

Some less familiar with this narrative might be wondering why Stella had medical expenses in the first place, and the answer is actually quite simple: At the time McDonalds served its coffee at around 190 degrees Fahrenheit![1] For reference of just how hot that is, water boils at 212 degrees, Fahrenheit[3] and "Most adults will suffer third-degree burns if exposed to 150 degree water for two seconds."[4] McDonalds had gotten around seven hundred complaints of their coffee being too hot for human consumption in the years before, and even had acknowledged previously that a liquid of this heat posed a serious hazard to those who drink it.[1] (Albeit, they defended themselves by arguing this was what their customers wanted.[5])

Stella specifically not only suffered third degree from this incident, but also ended up going into shock in what her surgeon called one of the worst cased he had ever come across.[1] Although a drink like coffee is meant to be hot, it is also supposed to be consumed by humans--including those who sometimes spill something on themselves in a moment of foolishness. Stella never denied that her spilling the coffee was, at the end of the day, her fault.[1] However, one would have to be a special kind of sadistic to think the appropriate punishment for something as common as spilling something on yourself should be what Stella went through.

Why the incorrect narrative was spun[edit]

Those of a certain generation, specifically people who were alive when this lawsuit took place, might be wondering how the story they heard in the media became so radically different from the one which actually occurred. Well, that was because of a campaign against lawsuits which targeted large corporations at the time, with TV Tropes noting that Stella's case became "the textbook example for a Frivolous Lawsuit."[6] Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting noted in one 1995 article regarding the use this situation by the anti-lawsuit crowd:

These facts were hardly secret–they were explained in substance, for example, by Ralph Nader in testimony to the House Judiciary Committee (2/13/95)–but pundits and PR flacks have exploited the Liebeck case as an “absurd” example of why reform is necessary to curb frivolous lawsuits. In many cases, their facts are incomplete or just plain wrong.[7]

FAIR goes on to note that, although Stella's case was the most famous example of this by far, it was far from the only one:

Since statistics don’t provide much backing for the idea that the civil litigation system is being abused by plaintiffs, the argument has been largely waged through anecdotes, often distributed by corporate-backed lobbies with names like the American Tort Reform Association. As with the hot coffee case, these cases often look very different when you get to hear both sides.[7]

And who was behind this push against lawsuits? Large corporations, who used Stella's story as a way a quick and easy punchline that doubled as a straightforward example of how insane things have gotten.[1]

Mind you, none of this is to say that the idea of an occasional silly lawsuits which results in a victory is a total myth. Given around forty million lawsuits occur every year,[8] you are eventually going to be able to find one where somebody who was able to get a ridiculous lawsuit to court and ended up winning. However, this specific case shows that many examples of what could be considered silly lawsuits are actually rather serious and deserve more consideration than simply writing them off as greedy and stupid people attempting to make a quick buck.

Why it was believed[edit]

Even ignoring all the aforementioned factors, this case provides a good example of, among other things, the issues with pre-internet media and why confirmation bias can distort reality rather heavily.

As the story spread throughout the country, and later the world, the actual text of the story ended up getting smaller and smaller. What began as an over six hundred story when reported on by the local papers in Albuquerque, New Mexico quickly became less than one hundred words when reported on by a newspaper in a larger area.[5] This is far from an uncommon practice, as reporters do typically summarize their primary sources when writing their articles on the topic in question. However, it must be remembered that when details are removed, especially regarding something as complicated as a court case, it is rather easy for the entire story to be changed, or for the details cut to actually be quite important in the grand scheme of things. "Woman sues McDonalds after spilling coffee on herself and getting third degree burns" is a much less simple story than "Woman sues McDonalds after spilling coffee on herself," for example.

In the pre-internet era, it was not as if these reporters could provide people links to the webpages where they got the story, allowing the reader to go and check to see if more was going on. All you had back in the day was the local newspaper and the television, and if those were distorting their sources in a way that made the story unrecognizable, it was near impossible for the average person to figure such a thing out.

This occurred when many Americans were angered with their justice system for various reasons. The following year, the OJ Simpson verdict provided an example of a large chunk of Americans feeling that an obviously guilty man got away with murder.[9] Meanwhile, those on the left were still outraged by the Rodney King verdict which occurred a few years beforehand,[10] and those on the right firmly believed we had a criminal in the Oval Office. As such, with all this anger towards the Judicial Branch, is it any wonder a story like this would be hyperbolized to no end and never questioned?