The Truth About the Spilled Coffee

The New York Times Retro Report has a video about the case of Stella Liebeck. Ms. Liebeck is the woman who sued McDonalds after a cup spilled coffee on her causing 3rd degree burns that required skin grafts and other surgeries. She was injured in 1979 and sued McDonalds in 1980. At trial the jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $2.9 million in punitive damages in addition to compensation for her medical bills and pain and suffering. The 2.9 million figure came from 3 days of McDonalds’ coffee sales. Ms. Liebeck eventually settled with McDonalds for around $500,000.

The “spilled coffee” case has been twisted and spun by those who wish to restrict our Seventh Amendment right to a jury in civil trials. Please watch the Times video and also check out the documentary Hot Coffee. It is available for streaming on Netflix. I have to warn you that the images of Ms. Liebeck’s injuries are not easily forgotten. Whenever someone talks about the epidemic of “frivolous lawsuits” remember Ms. Liebeck. The jury system is something that should be cherished and protected. “Tort reform” is an effort to weaken our ability as citizens to see that justice is served. Tort reform seeks to empower wrongdoers –typically corporate wrongdoers– at the expense of those who have been hurt through no fault of their own.

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