Mar 302011
Authors: Joe Vajgrt

In Monday’s edition of the Collegian, one of my colleagues wrote an article decrying frivolous lawsuits. Specifically, the article focused on the infamous “Stella” case, whereby a 79-year-old woman named Stella Liebeck received compensatory damages after being burned by a cup of McDonald’s coffee.

This case has become a symbol for skeptics who see our society as grossly overly-litigious. This is the case that time and again comes up in conversation about how ridiculous and greedy people in our society can be.

However, people simply neglect to pay attention to the facts of this case.

Due to an editorial error, the column stated that Liebeck, “negligently spilled hot coffee on herself while driving her car.”

The car was stopped, and Liebeck was not the one driving.

Liebeck was in the front passenger seat of her grandson’s car and asked him to stop so that she could add cream and sugar to her coffee before leaving the parking lot. She placed the coffee between her knees and accidentally (not negligently, as my colleague wrote) spilled the coffee in her lap.

According to the vascular surgeon who treated Liebeck, the victim suffered third degree burns on “her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks and genital and groin areas.”

Liebeck was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting over a very sensitive area of her body.

According to the Association of Trial Lawyers of America’s Fact Sheet on the case, Liebeck preferred to settle the case out of court for a mere $20,000, which McDonald’s refused. Only after their refusal did Liebeck take the case to court.

During the discovery phase of the case, it was uncovered that McDonald’s required its stores to keep its coffee within 5 degrees of 185 degrees Fahrenheit (a full 40 to 50 degrees hotter than other retail establishments in the area).

In fact, McDonalds’ own quality assurance manager testified that at this required temperature, their coffee “was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat” if a person attempted to drink it at that temperature.

The jury in the case initially awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages, an amount that was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Liebeck 20 percent at fault in the spill.
According to the ATLA Fact Sheet, the jury “also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which equals about two days of McDonalds’ coffee sales.”

Even though my colleague’s report of $2.86 million in damages is close to the correct figure for the jury’s decision, the actual amount awarded was greatly reduced when the trial court reduced the punitive award to $480,000 (three times the amount of compensatory damages) even though the judge called the actions of McDonald’s “reckless, callous and willful.”

In the end, the two sides reached an agreement behind closed doors, so the public will most likely never know the actual amount awarded to Liebeck.

I’ll be the first to agree that suing McDonald’s because you’re fat has no legal merit and is a waste of time that only clogs our already burdened legal system. But I’m tired of hearing this case used as an example of the supposed malevolence of people who file lawsuits against poor, defenseless global conglomerates.

The fact that Liebeck only sought $20,000 after being hospitalized for eight days while undergoing skin grafts and debridement on her vagina is proof enough that she wasn’t a greedy person.

The fact that McDonald’s refused such a humble request speaks volumes about that company’s character, too.

Joe Vajgrt is a junior journalism major who is very, very careful about where he puts his coffee. His column appears every Thursday in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to

 Posted by at 4:14 pm

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