We all know the details of the infamous McDonald’s Coffee Case. Or do we? Did you know that the Plaintiff, Stella Liebeck, was a passenger in her vehicle, not the driver? That the vehicle was not in motion, but parked in the McDonald’s parking lot? That McDonald’s coffee “holding temperature” was so hot that skin contact within five minutes of purchase caused third degree burns, requiring skin grafts? In fact, McDonald’s had hundreds of reports of prior similar incidents and injuries before Ms. Liebeck’s incident. The company had even conducted an internal study indicating that their coffee could be reduced by ten degrees and thereby avoid third degree burns, but nonetheless simply decided to do nothing. Ms. Liebeck was awarded punitive damages in addition to her compensatory damages, which finally forced the company to change its behavior.
Ms. Liebeck’s monetary award was significantly reduced after the verdict, but not before the judge noted that the company had engaged in “extreme,” “outrageous,” and “reckless” conduct that threatened the health of the general public.
Nonetheless, the original $2.9 million award (an amount Ms. Liebeck never received), was used as fodder for the public relations campaign known as “Tort Reform.” Hot Coffee, a documentary that recently debuted on HBO, chronicles the rise of this public relations campaign and its disconnect with the actual tort system.
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