The McDonalds Case – A Legal Icon
The McDonalds case has spawned a good deal of literature, for an in depth study and analysis of the facts of the case look at A Bloom,W. Halton, Mecam, Java Jive, Genealogy of a Juridical Icon, 56 U. Miami L. Review, 113 (2000); A similar situation in J&M Parsons v. McDonalds, 698 N.E.2d 516 (1998)
Here is a somewhat fuller explanation of Stella Liebeck's suit against McDonalds. As you will see, the coffee temperature can cause third degree burns in a matter of seconds, McDonalds had settled many other cases before Stella's (and she initially only sought a small amount of money for her daughter's time away from work and her own medical expenses), McDonald's lawyer in closing argument blamed the severity of her burns on the fact that she was old and had very thin skin, the punitive award was reduced by the trial judge, and the case was settled for much less than the amount published in the media while the case was on appeal.
The following is taken from Richard Wright's materials on Torts:
I. The Media
“By far the most widely known tort case, in the United States and internationally, is the "McDonald's coffee spill" case (Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, P.T.S., Inc., Civ. No. _____), which was tried and decided in Albuquerque, New Mexico in August 1994. The case hit the news wires and was almost immediately reported and derided by newspaper editors and television and radio talk-show hosts throughout the United States and around the world as a case in which an elderly (implicitly clumsy) lady spilled a cup of hot McDonald's coffee on herself while riding (or even while driving) in a car, sued McDonald's, and received a whopping 2.9 million dollars from a sympathetic jury. Some of the stories and editorials mentioned, in passing and without any elaboration, that Stella Liebeck, the plaintiff in the case, had incurred $10,000 in medical expenses, or that she had suffered third-degree burns. Many did not mention even these facts, preferring, as Newsweek later stated, to "give the headline and none of the details." Public opinion polls indicated a large majority of Americans were outraged at the verdict.
The Liebeck case immediately became the universally cited illustration of the excessive number of frivolous law suits, litigious plaintiffs, and out-of-control juries in the United States. It was used as a major weapon to fuel "tort reform" in the United States, and it was cited in foreign countries (e.g., the United Kingdom and Australia) to oppose or favor legal changes which allegedly would lead to or avoid, respectively, the excesses and dysfunction of the United States' tort litigation system.
The case was decided in the midst of the 1994 election campaigns in the United States, in which "tort reform" was a major plank in the Republican Party's platform and "Contract with America." The case was repeatedly and continuously cited by tort reform advocates during the campaigns and thereafter, as the Republican landslide in the elections brought the Republicans control of the U.S. Congress and many state legislatures, and tort reform became one of the major items, often the major item, in the legislative agendas. As Newsweek magazine eventually described the situation, Stella Liebeck became the unwilling "poster lady" for the tort reform movement, especially in Washington, D.C., where the local media was saturated with political advertisements referring to the McDonald's coffee-spill horror-story as part of a massive effort finally to push through a federal product liability law, but also in states around the country where the Liebeck case was used as the major propaganda weapon in the state-law tort-reform efforts.
There was no published opinion in the Liebeck case. However, one might have thought (hoped) that the media would take the minimal effort required to ascertain the actual facts in a case of such pervasive and continuing notoriety and political...
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