More than 20 years ago, Stella Liebeck ordered coffee at a McDonald’s drive-through in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She spilled the coffee and burned over 16 percent of her body. She told McDonald’s about her injuries and requested $11,000 as a reimbursement for her medical bills. McDonald’s offered her only $800.
One year later, Liebeck sued McDonald’s and the jury awarded her $2.9 million, of which $200,000 was awarded for her injuries and $1.7 million was awarded as punitive damages. The jury based the punitive damages on one day of coffee sales, pointing out that the number had to be big for McDonald’s to take notice considering they had ignored hundreds of previous complaints.
The trial lasted about a week and the jury deliberated for hours. They learned about the details of the third degree burns on Liebeck’s groin. They also learned that during the years before this trial, McDonald’s had received more than 700 complaints about hot coffee burns. The details of the case, however, went mostly unreported. Stella became a symbol for frivolous lawsuits.
Tort lawyers are often vilified by big government and big business, but in fact they are the few who help protect the rights and interests of regular citizens by holding negligent parties accountable. The bottom line is that the case that continues to be used as an example for the need for tort reform is often misunderstood and distorted.