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The Million-Dollar Coffee Spill

Ten years after the infamous court case, let's look at the whole picture.

Callaghan

by Elizabeth Callaghan

You go to a McDonald's drive-through, get a cup of coffee, and park the car. You place the cup between your legs to steady it so you can add cream and sugar, and in the process spill the contents. You suffer third-degree burns requiring a seven-day hospital stay and painful skin grafts. A doctor says they're the worst injuries he's ever seen from a liquid burn. Your medical bills top $20,000. You ask McDonald's to cover these expenses. It offers $800.

Why should McDonald's pay your medical bills? Coffee is supposed to be hot, right? But your attorney discovers that McDonald's served its coffee 20 to 40 degrees hotter than most fast-food places. He learns that the company received numerous warnings that its coffee was dangerously hot: more than 700 complaints had been filed during the previous decade. McDonald's quietly settled many lawsuits out of court but neither warned about the dangers its coffee posed if spilled nor reduced the coffee's temperature.

Those are the facts of what would become known as the "million-dollar coffee spill." Last August marked the 10-year anniversary of the nearly $2.9 million jury decision that shocked the nation. Stella Leibeck, a 79-year-old who had never before filed a lawsuit, was the plaintiff. The jury decided McDonald's had a duty to provide the public a safe product and to warn customers if the product was dangerous. Jurors also found that Leibeck contributed to the harm and reduced the verdict by 20 percent for her share of the blame. That's standard procedure in personal injury cases.

Most of the monies awarded to Leibeck, however, represented punitive damages, which are less standard and are meant to send a message to the defendant. McDonald's earned $1 million a day in coffee sales, and the jury thought a couple of days' worth of coffee would be appropriately punitive.

The case made front-page headlines. It was featured twice on David Letterman's top-10 lists; an episode of Seinfeld parodied it. Radio and television commentators mocked the decision. The media attention created a public image of what the verdict symbolized -- frivolous lawsuits, greedy lawyers, out-of-control juries. Polls taken after the verdict showed that the public solidly supported the Golden Arches.

Why? Because of a particular American narrative about taking responsibility for our own actions. It seemed wrong to blame McDonald's for a customer's "careless" spill.

But most people didn't know the whole story. When McDonald's appealed the decision and the judge reduced the award by 75 percent, no one seemed to notice. Newspapers published angry letters referring to the million-dollar windfall and other erroneous information, such as that Leibeck was tearing around in a sports car while trying to put condiments in her coffee.

Taking advantage of people's outrage over a "legal system run amok," so-called tort reform advocates, many of them actually in cahoots with corporations like McDonald's, took out ads. "We can't afford another million-dollar cup of coffee," said one, well after the award had been reduced to under $600,000. In 30 states, laws limiting damage awards in personal injury litigation were overhauled. Most such legislation favored big corporations. Now it is more difficult in some states for ordinary Americans with reasonable cases to receive compensation for injuries caused by those corporations.

Looking at the McDonald's case now, many believe the original verdict was reasonable. We need to look beneath the surface story of court decisions and carefully read the facts. When we do that, we discover that Stella Leibeck was not driving a sports car while adding cream to her coffee; she suffered severe and permanent injuries; and McDonald's had been repeatedly warned that its coffee could cause third-degree burns. Leibeck collected nothing close to millions of dollars.

If we don't read the facts carefully, we become frustrated with the system and support unnecessary, and perhaps even destructive, "reforms."

Those who ridiculed the decision -- which they did not fully understand -- would stand to lose, like everyone, if damage awards are cut. The "we" that reform advocates referred to in propaganda ads refers to insurance companies, wealthy physicians, and large corporations like McDonald's, not the average American.

Elizabeth Callaghan is a lawyer and an assistant professor of sociology in the School of Humanities and Sciences. A version of this essay originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 18, 2004; it is reprinted with permission.

Photo by Sheryl D. Sinkow

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