‘Hot coffee’ lawsuit longest U.S. game of ‘Telephone’

“The bigger the lie, the more they believe.”

— Detective William “Bunk” Moreland, “The Wire”

It’s been more than 20 years since an Albuquerque woman spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee on herself and was awarded millions by a jury in the most famous example of egregiously frivolous lawsuits.

Well, that’s the version in one of the longest-running games of “Telephone” known to this country.

The version that’s survived probably goes something like this in your mind: An elderly woman, probably a few years too old to be driving on her own, hurriedly orders a cup of coffee and puts it between her legs. She drives off and when she brakes, the lid comes off and she gets a little bit of coffee spilled on her. This hurts her, so she finds her favorite attorney and they sue until a jury of people just as dumb give her $3 million.

The case happened about 225 miles away, but reality is still millions of miles away from the average person’s mind … even with an HBO documentary detailing the case and a recent article from Retro Report.

Here are a few things that happened about 20 years ago that didn’t make the talk show circuits and Toby Keith songs:

  • Stella Liebeck, 79, was the passenger in a car driven by her son. They stopped by a McDonald’s and got a quick breakfast. She had her son stop the vehicle so she could remove the lid and add cream and sugar. Her son’s car didn’t have a cup holder, so she put the drink on her seat for just a few seconds.
  • The eight ounces of liquid spilled onto her sweatsuit, and the nearly boiling beverage stayed in the fabric and ended up burning 16 percent of her body, some of it third-degree. Treatment required skin grafting.
  • Liebeck asked for McDonald’s to pay the portion of her hospital bill that wasn’t covered by her health insurance and Medicaid. The restaurant refused.
  • Because McDonald’s refused to pay, a lawsuit occurred. During this lawsuit, jurors heard about Liebeck’s ordeal. They heard about 700 similar complaints in the preceding decade, and the restaurant not doing anything because hundreds of people against the millions of cups of coffee they sold a year was statistically insignificant. The restaurant also argued keeping its coffee at 190 degrees was what its customers wanted.
  • Following the week-long case, the jury deliberated for four hours. The decision handed down was two-fold. In the first portion, the jury decided Liebeck should receive a $200,000 award. It reduced the award to $160,000, because even though the coffee was at an unreasonable temperature she still bore responsibility for the spill.
  • The second part was a punitive award. It suggested the amount of $2.86 million. This amounted to two days of coffee sales at McDonald’s. You know, a statistically insignificant amount.
  • The judge had final say on the ruling, and reduced the total for both judgments to $500,000.

The rest of society subjected her to a life of mockery and scorn because of her role in their imaginary stories. Go look at the Facebook comments on the Retro Report’s story, and you’ll see people are still arguing with the details of the version they know, because it makes their argument easier.

They need to read a little, and hang up the telephone.

Kevin Wilson is a columnist for Clovis Media Inc. He can be contacted at 763-3431, ext. 313 or by email:

kwilson@cnjonline.com

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