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Another Elderly Woman Suing McDonald's After Being Burned By Their Coffee. Let's Not Be Gross About It This Time!
America did Stella Liebeck wrong.
Picture it: The United States, August 1994. Bill Clinton is president, the Kremlin accords are signed, the country is still reeling from the suicide (yes) of Kurt Cobain, Jeff Gillooly has pleaded guilty to attacking Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to attack Nancy Kerrigan, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman have been murdered and OJ Simpson has led police on a high speed chase in a White Bronco, and on Days of Our Lives, Marlena Evans gets possessed by Satan.
Also too, an 80-year-old woman named Stella Liebeck was awarded $2.9 million by a jury after spilling a cup of hot McDonald’s coffee on herself, becoming the object of a thousand bad late night jokes, the poster senior citizen for “frivolous lawsuits” and spurring a renewed push for tort reform. What a time to be alive!
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But as we should all know now, it wasn’t a frivolous lawsuit at all. It was close to the 700th lawsuit the company had faced for its scalding-hot coffee, which was kept at 180–190°F so that it would be still be hot when people got to work. For reference, according to my meat thermometer, the perfectly hot coffee I just took out of the microwave is 125°F.
Liebeck had severe third-degree burns all over her pelvic region that you do not want to Google image search right after breakfast. She had initially asked the company to settle for $20,000, enough to cover her hospital bills and her daughter’s lost income, and they offered her a paltry $800. She didn’t get the $2.9 million anyway, meant to represent two days of coffee revenues for the fast food giant — the judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000.
And now it’s happened again. Mable Childress, 85, is suing McDonald’s after suffering burns from the chain’s coffee all over her stomach, leg and groin region.
The 85-year-old put the coffee in her vehicle's cup holder, drove to her foot doctor's office for an appointment and parked.
"As soon as she picked up the cup of coffee to drink it, since the lid wasn't put on correctly, all of the coffee spilled on her," her attorney, Dylan Hackett, said in an interview.
The coffee burned Childress on her stomach, groin and leg area and left scarring on her groin. When she returned to McDonald's to make a complaint, none of the three employees she spoke with filled out an incident report, Hackett said.
Childress’s main issue was with the improperly secured lid and the fact that she feels she was blown off by the staff, but coffee should not be served hot enough to burn someone severely enough to cause a scar. Microwaves exist. If coffee gets cool, which it will at some point regardless of how hot it starts out, that is where they come in.
(Full disclosure: I have have had second degree burns from spilling coffee from another company in my lap, and while it didn’t scar, it hurt like hell and caused some serious blisters. That shit is no joke.)
Despite the famous lawsuit, McDonald’s is still getting sued pretty regularly over the temperature of its food. Earlier this year, as NPR notes, a jury found in favor of a little girl who got second-degree burns from an errant Chicken McNugget that fell out of her happy meal. This is perhaps because there are still no actual regulations governing how hot is too hot. There are regulations on how hot food has to be, of course, to prevent food poisoning, but no regulations on how hot it shouldn’t be, to prevent burns.
Lawsuits like these are part of the price we pay for the way we do things in the United States. They are the price we pay for so-called “small government.” We don’t have socialized health care, so when a business causes someone to require medical treatment, they have to pay for it. More to the point, however, we’ve largely replaced regulation with litigation. Instead of telling companies what they can and cannot do and putting the onus on them not to do that, we regulate them by allowing people to sue them when what they do goes terribly wrong, and then, frequently, publicly shame those people, accuse them of being responsible for price hikes and then lament how terribly litigious the country has become and what a sad thing this is for our society.
It’s quite the set-up. Especially since, if these lawsuits truly were so terribly burdensome, corporations wouldn’t vastly prefer this system to increased regulations.
We’re in a different place now than we were in 1994 (though Marlena did get possessed again a couple years ago), we know more now and hopefully have less of a knee-jerk reaction to “frivolous lawsuits” than we once did.