In 1994, Mrs. Stella Liebeck brought forth one of the most famous, and famously misrepresented, civil product liability lawsuits in American history. Believe it or not, this lawsuit forms the basis for how most people feel about the legal system in America. Does it sound familiar? Maybe you remember the lawsuit more for its defendant, the McDonald’s Corporation, and their hot coffee.
The case stemmed from a seemingly simple incident, where Mrs. Liebeck, a 79-year old woman, was sitting in a stopped car preparing to put sugar in her coffee. As the lid came off, the coffee spilled on her lap, leaving her with third-degree burns over about 16% of her body. Mrs. Liebeck required extensive medical care, taking a toll on both her time and money. Though she tried to settle out of court, the resulting lawsuit became one that captured the nation’s attention, but there are some good points to be taken from the case.
One of the biggest arguments surrounding this case is the nature of who’s at fault. For some, Stella Liebeck should’ve known better and was burned in a way that could’ve been expected. For others, McDonald’s is an evil entity that hurt an elderly woman out of malice. The truth is that, while Mrs. Liebeck did spill her coffee, that coffee was kept at a temperature that was entirely too hot for safety. Unfortunately, situations like this aren’t unusual, and getting the appropriate parties to admit fault isn’t easy.
One of the most important takeaways here is that Stella Liebeck didn’t originally want to pursue legal action. She hoped that the McDonald’s Corporation would just give her a small sum to cover her medical bills. This isn’t unusual for most people. Oftentimes, when we’re involved in an accident of some sort, we just want the other party to make it right. The problem is that the other party is often a large company that just isn’t looking out for you. Much like Mrs. Liebeck, sometimes you need someone on your side for your rights.
One of the other major issues people have with this case is the awarded amount. She originally just sought a small amount to pay for her medical expenses. During her suit, the compensatory damages awarded were only $160,000. It was actually $2.7 million of punitive damages that the jury awarded making up the bulk of the judgment. In the end, Stella Liebeck and McDonald’s settled for less than $600,000, a result that would have been impossible without the judgment.
One consistent theme throughout this legal proceeding is that she needed someone on her side. The fact is that Mrs. Liebeck attempted to settle with McDonald’s for the simple amount of her medical bills. Medical bills she only had as a result of corporate negligence. In the end, Stella Liebeck was able to receive the compensation she deserved with the help of a legal team. This compensation enabled her to live out the remainder of her years without significant impact from this incident.
The biggest lesson here is that sometimes you just need someone on your side. If you’re in a situation like Stella Liebeck, don’t go it alone. The simple truth is that people, insurance companies, and corporations don’t always do the right thing. We’ve seen this time and again in our twenty years of serving the injured. Our passion is to represent the bullied, the vulnerable, and the injured. If you have been hurt or experienced loss becomes of someone else’s negligence, contact us and we will answer your questions.