The “hot coffee” lawsuit in the 1990s made punitive damages a fiercely debated topic.
Stella Liebeck was riding in her grandson’s car, which he stopped so she could add cream and sugar to her McDonald’s coffee. With the cup secured between her legs, she attempted to remove the lid. The cup tipped, spilling the scalding liquid onto her lap. Liebeck suffered third degree burns, was hospitalized for eight days, and required expensive and painful skin grafting and debridement treatments.
After McDonald’s refused to settle for more than $800, a jury awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, in addition to medical expenses and compensatory damages. Advocates of tort reform quickly began using Liebeck’s case as their top argument for limits on personal injury damages, labeling it a “frivolous lawsuit.” People focused so much on the verdict that they forgot about the badly burned grandmother.
According to the documentary Hot Coffee, when Liebeck was injured, McDonald’s required its coffee to be held at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit — hot enough to cause third degree burns in mere seconds. Punitive damages punish negligent and reckless corporations. When you consider McDonald’s made $1.3 million in just coffee sales on the day Liebeck was injured, does $2.7 million seem so outlandish?
Until recently, the cruise industry thought it was safe from punitive damages in passenger personal injury cases. Last fall, however, a district court in Florida ruled a passenger who lost part of her finger in a cruise ship accident could seek punitive damages. Perhaps this ruling and its threat of monetary punishment will encourage cruise lines to be more concerned about the safety of their passengers.
Latti & Anderson LLP – Boston maritime trial lawyers