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HomeOpinionEditorialAS WE SEE IT: What makes a lawsuit frivolous?

AS WE SEE IT: What makes a lawsuit frivolous?

We’re about to be bombarded with frivolous lawsuit arguments again as a recent incident, involving an elderly woman burning herself on McDonald’s coffee, harkens back to the case which arguably propelled the term into the mainstream in the first place.

The most recent case claims negligence in securing the lid on the coffee, resulting in serious burns to the chest, groin, and thighs of the woman involved – similar to the injuries in the original case. They could have been just as severe as well. That’s because even though the original case wasn’t about the lid, but about the temperature, McDonald’s has reportedly done nothing in the intervening years to address the issue, with the company still reportedly holding their coffee between 176 and 194 degrees.

This is slightly hotter, but in line, with the standard for other establishments. So, this literally could have happened anywhere; and the original case, often referred to as simply The McDonald’s Coffee Case, has been held up by corporate lawyers as the quintessential frivolous lawsuit.

After all, as we’re all aware, coffee is served hot.

But despite the teeth gnashing and howling about “frivolous lawsuits” in the wake of Liebeck v McDonald’s, Stella Liebeck’s injuries were very real, and very serious.

She went into shock, and was taken to the hospital where she was treated for third degree burns over six percent of her body, and lesser burns over another 16 percent. This treatment included skin grafts and an eight day stay in the hospital, and around $20,000 in expected medical bills and lost wages for her daughter during her recovery.
Liebeck asked the corporation to cover those expenses, McDonald’s offered her $800, and the rest is history.

When Liebeck eventually won her suit, a jury awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages, and $2.7 million in punitive damages meant to send a message to McDonald’s.

That number, while it seems high, wasn’t random.

It’s the amount that the corporation would have made for two days’ worth of coffee sales.

In that context, it’s hardly a huge financial burden on the corporation. And the injuries, as noted, were both real and severe. Yet, the myth remains that Liebeck’s lawsuit was frivolous, even after a judge reduced that amount to a total of $640,000 ($160,000 compensatory and $480,000 punitive) and the plaintiff’s lawyers reached an agreement for an undisclosed amount with the corporation.

One reason for this may have been Liebeck’s own openness and transparency about how the accident happened.

She spilled the coffee on herself, while trying to remove the lid to add cream and sugar. But her claim wasn’t that McDonald’s spilled coffee on her. Her claim was that McDonald’s was requiring franchisees to serve their coffee at an unsafe temperature.

Her injuries stand as testament to that fact.
Stella Liebeck wasn’t faking an injury for a payday. She was pointing out a problem with their procedures, asking them to address it, and to pay for her injuries resulting from this problem.

It’s not an unreasonable ask, and whether you agree with the final verdict or not, there was nothing frivolous about the injuries Liebeck suffered.

While I hope the burns in the recent case weren’t as severe – Liebeck’s sweatpants held hot liquid next to her skin longer, exacerbating her burns – I’m sure it wasn’t a pleasant experience either.

There are, of course, other perspectives than those of the customer.

Despite the old saying, the customer is not always right. Sometimes they’re not only wrong, but they go from simply being wrong and walking away to being indignantly wrong.

If you’ve never seen it yourself (lucky you) the internet is full of videos displaying exactly this type of entitled behavior.

Employees of these restaurants and the franchise holders are members of their communities, not some distant corporate entity. No one believes they want to hurt anyone, or deal with the headache’s that come with lawsuits like this.

But disputes like this are exactly why we have a legal system. So that a jury of our peers may hear

our cases, make a ruling, and a judge may temper that ruling, if necessary, while ensuring it adheres to the letter and the spirit of the law.

The new suit, claiming employee negligence, may even prove to be more harmful for the franchisee than for corporate.

We’ll just have to wait and see how it works out.

One thing is certain in the meantime, though; if McDonald’s had taken Stella Liebeck seriously and addressed the concerns related to temperature in her lawsuit 30 years ago, they likely wouldn’t be finding themselves in hot water today.
And no matter how you feel about assigning blame, there is nothing frivolous about third degree burns.

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