If you talk about lawsuits today, some people will tell you that a lot of them are frivolous. There are a few famous cases that you might have heard about in which people sued a business for something that can usually only be described as resulting from their own stupidity.
For example, in 1992 Stella Liebeck became the poster child of "frivolous" lawsuits when she sued McDonald's after spilling hot coffee on herself while in a car after stopping at a McDonald's drive-through.
Stella ordered her 49 cent coffee knowing that it was incredibly hot. She chose to attempt to drive while holding her coffee in the front seat. Stella clumsily spilled the coffee in her lap while driving and slightly burned herself. Angry at her own stupidity, she turned against a big corporation for revenge. Stella received a final judgment for her trouble, and the burn from McDonald's coffee was an unprecedented occurrence.
Stella was 79 years. She was a passenger in her grandson's vehicle. She ordered a 49 cent coffee at the McDonal''s drive through, and was attempting to open the coffee to add cream and sugar while the car was not moving, when the cap popped off, spilling coffee in her lap. Because the coffee was heated to between 180-190 degrees fahrenheit, and because she was wearing sweatpants which absorbed the coffee and held it next to her skin, Stella received third degree burns on her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, genital, and groin areas. These injuries resulted in eight days of hospitalization during which she received skin grafting for her burns. Stella was left scarred and disabled for more than a year.
What most stories about the incident also omit is that McDonald's had been purposefully heating its coffee almost 30 degree above the temperature at which it may create third degree burns (either to sell cheaper coffee by conceling its low quality or to bring out the taste - depending on who you ask).
Stella's initial compensatory judgment of 200,000 was reduced to 160,000 and the punitive damages of 2.7 million were reduced to 480,000. Part of why the decision was so high was because McDonald's made 1.35 million in daily coffee sales at the time of the incident. Despite the fact that any human skin that came into contact with coffee heated to 180 degrees would create third degree burns in 2-7 seconds (the skin is burned away down to the muscle), and that McDonald's required that its coffee be held at between 180-190 degrees for serving, the jury assigned 20% of the blame for the injury to Stella for spilling the coffee and reduced her judgment accordingly.
McDonald's had previously settled similar cases amounting to more than $500,000 in compensation before Stella's case. Seven hundred people had previously reported being burned by McDonald's coffee.
Although the jury initially awarded a sizable reward, and the judge subsequently reduced this award, Stella had initially offered to settle for $20,000 before the trial but McDonald's had refused. The case was ultimately settled between Stella and the corporation for an undisclosed amount.
There will sometimes be frivolous lawsuits
There will sometimes be frivolous defenses to lawsuits.
What's most important is to know that not all of the urban legal mythologies used to attack the civil justice system are true.
You should be able to buy coffee without having it horribly disfigure you if you trip. People trip all the time. People spill all the time. Eventually, it will happen to everybody. When coffee is served at a temperature at which it will always melt human skin, you should be able to sue the person or corporation responsible - even if you were an idiot for spilling it on yourself. It is clear that one day, we will all have our turn being that idiot.
Of course, the moral of the story is to always question what you hear. When people have an agenda, whatever that agenda is, they are willing to bend the truth. Indeed, it should give everybody who has invoked the image of this case as a symbol of an out of control civil justice system a moment of pause to see how drastically some were willing to twist the truth to attempt to push their side of the issue.
So - keep suing McDonald's - even if you're a clumsy oaf (in which case your reward will be reduced accordingly) - unless and until McDonald's makes the temperature of its coffee at least a little less than the temperature at which it melts human skin.
That function is what our civil justice system is here for, to hold corporations accountable for their unsafe products.
For More Resources Debunking This Legal Myth
Center for Justice and Democracy
Center for Economic and Policy Research
Association of Trial Lawyers of America
For a representative argument that this was a frivolous lawsuit click here.
If you or your organization is interested in learning more about or working on these types of civil justice issues, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Senior Fellow in Civil Justice
Drum Major Institute for Public Policy