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Super-Hot McDonald's Coffee: Use Caution in Changing the Legal System

Updated on December 7, 2017
William F. Torpey profile image

Graduated NYU 1964. Worked in NYC in public relations 2 years then as reporter/news editor 32 years at The Hour newspapers. Retired in 2000.

Caution: Super Hot Coffee

Leon Panetta With Bill Clinton


Poor Stella Liebeck!

Stella was minding her own business one day when she decided to stop at McDonald's for a cup of coffee. The incredibly hot coffee spilled, scalding her severely. She sued and won a substantial monetary award.

Stella's $2.7 million damage award, which attracted so much national attention, was later reduced, incidentally, to below $500,000 on appeal. I wonder how many people know, or care, about that!

Big Splash in Newspapers

Now Stella is frequently held up as an example by Republican conservatives who have been trying for many years to protect big business from the multi-million dollar "product liability" lawsuits and punitive damages that always make a big splash in the newspapers. (They're not such great news stories when, months or years later, the huge awards are overturned or, often, reduced significantly.)

The truth is that the coffee served by many fast-food establishments is unconscionably hot, and the kind of injuries Stella suffered were not only likely but inevitable.

Conservatives would prefer, no doubt, that people like Stella be given a coupon for a free hamburger rather than have a legally constituted jury decide -- after a thorough review of the facts -- what a fair settlement would be.

Frivolous Lawsuits

Congress presently is in the throes of a battle over the revamping of the nation's civil legal system, including House bills pushed through by the GOP last week to make it easier to defend product liability and securities fraud cases, and reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits. It's all part of Newt Gingrich's infamous "Contract With America."

The Republican idea is to save money by putting a federal limit on punitive damages in most lawsuits, including an artificial $250,000 cap on pain and suffering awards in medical malpractice cases; losers would be forced to pay the legal fees of the winners under certain conditions.

The approved bills were immediately called "flawed" by two Senators, Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who are pushing their own bill, backed by Connecticut Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Christopher Dodd, which is more likely to escape a Clinton veto.

Seeking Simple Solutions

Once again Gingrich, Sen. Bob Dole, and other Republicans pushing for approval of the "contract," are seeking simple solutions to complex problems. Fortunately, cooler heads are likely to prevail in the Senate, and many of those mindless "contract" proposals will fail or at least be moderated.

Under the Grand Old Party's multi-million budget-cutting proposals, the nation's poorest people will suffer the most severe consequences of the "contract" while tax cuts for the wealthy are given priority attention by the GOP.

'Mean-spirited' Proposals

White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, generally a quiet, soft-spoken gentleman, has described some of the Republicans' proposed budget cuts as "irresponsible" and "mean spirited."

There's no question that some changes should be considered, but Congress should put aside the escalating political buffoonery and at least try to apply reason and perhaps a little caution and wisdom.

Meanwhile President Clinton reportedly has been seen recently looking all over the White House for his veto pen.

I wrote this column as a "My View" for The Hour newspaper of Norwalk, Conn., on March 18, 1995. I now write my views on a wide variety of topics on HubPages.

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Here's the Whole Story About the $2.7 Million Hot Coffee Lawsuit


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    • William F. Torpey profile imageAUTHOR

      William F Torpey 

      9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      We often get a distorted picture of events, SweetiePie, from incomplete press accounts and from biased views expressed on television shows as well as from politicians and insurance industry spokesmen. I believe, as you do, that it's not necessary to file lawsuits for frivolous reasons. In fact, it is part of the judicial system's responsibilty to dismiss truly frivolous lawsuits. It's unfortunate, however, that we are so often exposed to misinformation from sources that many put their faith in.

    • SweetiePie profile image


      9 years ago from Southern California, USA

      Okay maybe I was wrong. Maybe she was not driving. Okay I was going off my old memory of the story. Anyway, I will not worry about it :).

    • SweetiePie profile image


      9 years ago from Southern California, USA

      Still stand by my words though because there was another case with a senior citizen who did scald her legs with coffee as she drove. I will watch the video, but excuse me for still finding this lawsuit a bit frivolous to say the least. I tripped on a side walk and broke my toe a few years ago, and I never sued anyone. I broke my arm in elementary school because I slipped in a mud puddle. My world view simply diverges with yours on this note. Not saying people should not sue, but sometimes it can be a bit over the top.

    • William F. Torpey profile imageAUTHOR

      William F Torpey 

      9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thank you for commenting, SweetiePie. I have to assume you did not watch the video, which explains that the coffee was not just hot, it was superheated to 180 or 190 degrees. She was not driving, she was in the passenger seat -- and the car was not moving. The coffee was not in her lap. The coffee spilled when she attempted to open it. The amount of any lawsuit is determined by the jury, and the dollar figure asked for in any lawsuit has little meaning. This victim initially only asked for $20,000 that was the amount of her out-of-pocket cost. The amount was increased later when new information became available.

    • SweetiePie profile image


      9 years ago from Southern California, USA

      I am a liberal, but honestly I have always been turned off of lawsuit cases where the recipient is asking for a large sum. I really do not like greedy corporations, but if the people filing these lawsuits were to donate the money to education or charity I might feel differently. We need to hold corporations accountable, but if you drive with scalding hot coffee between your legs, then you share some of the blame. I was taught as a toddler not to play with scalding hot liquids, and I always let coffee cool before drinking it. I recommend not going out for coffee anyway, I think it is better to make your own.

    • William F. Torpey profile imageAUTHOR

      William F Torpey 

      12 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      I appreciate your comments, MrMarmalade and Isabella. These kinds of cases are not rare. They keep coming up all the time. I've written several columns about our system of justice; it needs some serious review.

    • Isabella Snow profile image

      Isabella Snow 

      12 years ago

      I remember this! Great hub!

    • MrMarmalade profile image


      12 years ago from Sydney

      Stella's $2.7 million damage award, which attracted so much national attention, was later reduced, incidentally, to below $500,000 on appeal. I wonder how many people know, or care, about that!

      In the last fortnight a young lady received $9 Million dollars about 5.5 years ago for being a passenger in a car of a drunken driver.

      Any way the appeal had 2.5 Million dollars dropped. The judge said that this then 16 year old girl must bear some of the responsibility of getting into a car with a drunken driver.

      You would be a very knowledgeable 16 year old to even think of that matter. You and I would not get into the car in the first place

      Thanks for your thought provoking hub

    • profile image


      12 years ago

      Bill......I wonder how much of that half mill. her atternoy recieved ? Pick on the Republicans for supporting big business, but it seems that you Dems are in the pocket bysupporting the trial atternoys and they're really BIG BUSINESS !!

    • William F. Torpey profile imageAUTHOR

      William F Torpey 

      12 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thanks, Ralph. McDonald's did lower the temperature. Not long after that Wendy's, where I enjoyed hot chocolate at the time, stopped selling it. It was my assumption that the hot chocolate went the way of McDonald's coffee because I believe it, too, was superheated.

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 

      12 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Goog article. If I'm not mistaken, after the incident McDonald's lowered the temperature of its coffee. So, the law worked exactly the way it's supposed to. Unfortunatley that often is not the case, for example, in so-called mandatory arbitration decisions in cases against stock brokers and credit card companies. They should not be allowed to call these one-sided hearings "arbitration."

    • William F. Torpey profile imageAUTHOR

      William F Torpey 

      12 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thanks for the comment,, jormins. I think you'll find most of the big jury awards you read in the papers end up substantially reduced after the Appeals Courts get through with them! I hope those consumer warning help -- Look what's happening with the imports from China!

    • jormins profile image


      12 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Wow she got less than 500K? Its funny how that never made the news. At least one good thing came of that lawsuit. Almost every product we can consume has some warning on it no matter how funny it may sound.


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