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The Hot Coffee Legacy

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Although the name Stella Liebeck may not ring a bell, most people are familiar with the infamous McDonalds hot coffee case, in which a woman won millions due to a burn she received when her coffee spilled. The case turned into a late-night talk show running joke and became a frequent reference point when discussing “sue-happy” Americans. A recent HBO documentary called Hot Coffee addressed the well-known case and examined the subsequent era of tort reform and its impact on plaintiffs.

In 1992, 79 year old Liebeck ordered a 49 cent cup of coffee at an Albuquerque McDonalds. Contrary to popular belief, she was in a non-moving car at the time of the incident, and spilled the coffee after removing the lid. The 180-degree coffee scalded her upper legs and groin leaving her with third degree burns over 6 percent of her body. Liebeck was hospitalized for eight days and underwent skin grafts to repair the damage.

It was discovered that McDonald’s had received more than 700 complaints from individuals burned by coffee kept dangerously hot at in the ten year period between 1982 and 1992.

Liebeck did not actually sue for millions, as was widely reported. She initially asked for $20,000 to put towards her substantial medical bills, and a trial judge reduced the $2.86 million award to $640,000. Ultimately, she settled for an even lower, undisclosed amount.

Tort Reform

Tort reform refers to potential changes in common law civil justice systems that would reduce or cap damages that could be awarded to plaintiffs. Stella Liebeck’s case has often been used by tort reformers as a prime example of a frivolous lawsuit. Recent efforts in Tort reform have led to “Loser pays” bills taking effect, which would hold people who lose a lawsuit responsible for the legal fees of their opponent.

Another subject of “Hot Coffee,” Jamie Leigh Jones, has felt the impact of these measures. She was recently ordered to pay $145,000 after losing her court battle against Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), a subsidiary of Halliburton.

Whether you agree with “Hot Coffee” or not, the fact remains that lawsuits are one of the few methods of holding people and powerful companies accountable for their actions. The more difficult it becomes to take these institutions to trial, the likelihood of justice being served is greatly diminished.

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It is extremely important that American citizens maintain the right to take legal recourse when a dangerous product causes harm. The behavior of huge corporations and manufacturers must not go unchecked, and lawsuits are an influential way of holding these companies responsible for their actions. If you or someone you love has been harmed or killed by a dangerous product or drug, you deserve compensation. Contact us today for a free consultation to learn more about your legal rights and options.

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