The latest viral media story that has taken over the internet is that of Tessica Brown, a Louisiana woman who used Gorilla Glue spray adhesive in place of actual hair spray on her hair. It has been a harrowing story and I, for one, am enrapt by it. With news that Brown may be seeking legal action against Gorilla Glue, the discourse has brought up a figure well known in tort law: the “McDonald’s Coffee Lady.”
In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee on her lap. She sued McDonald’s, and a jury awarded her nearly $3 million in punitive damages for the burns she suffered. This story has always taken on a life of its own and, despite many programs and documentaries discussing the truth, it seems people still think it was a frivolous lawsuit.
So here’s the truth. When Liebeck spilled the coffee, the car was stationary and the cup between her knees. During the process of adding cream and sugar, the cup tipped over and everything spilled onto her lap. The coffee wasn’t “hot.” It was between 180 and 190 degrees, the standard for the time.
As someone who used to work as a barista, I have spilled hot coffee on myself. I’ve burned myself mildly plenty of times because the entire process is hot. But 180–190 degrees is madness. At that point, it is close to the 212-degree boiling point of water.
Liebeck received third-degree burns and required skin grafts on her inner thighs and other places on her lower body. If you look at the injuries, they are horrifying and bone chilling.
Yet, despite all of that, the media would just frame it as the coffee being “too hot.” While I know that they couldn’t show the full extent of her injuries on the nightly news, the framing made it seem ludicrous. “Isn’t coffee supposed to be hot?” was the refrain.
While Liebeck was awarded almost 3 million dollars, that is not what she sued the company for. She offered to settle the case for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses and lost income, and that’s all, but McDonald’s never offered more than $800, which is why she ended up going to court.
Some of the facts the jury heard included the fact that, at that temperature, third degree burns could happen in seconds. McDonald’s admitted it had known about the risk of serious burns for more than 10 years, and that there were around 700 cases of people being harmed by the coffee.
That is why the jury awarded the nearly 3 million-dollar sum. They felt the company hadn’t taken the seriousness of the incidents surrounding the coffee and treated the whole situation callously. After all, what is $20,000 to McDonald’s when an old woman’s skin has been burned off?
After the case, jurors shared that “the facts were so overwhelmingly against the company.” Yet, public opinion has remained not on the side of this elderly woman, but with McDonald’s, which is by design. It didn’t help that late night hosts, Republican lawmakers, and the media continued to minimize the harm that had been done.
I may not think that Brown has a case against Gorilla Glue, but I think it is important that we not invoke the “McDonald’s coffee lady” as an example of a frivolous lawsuit. It was not frivolous, and the pain she suffered was real, with the blame clearly on the side of the company.
(image: FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images)
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