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Any time you find yourself in an argument about frivolous lawsuits and tort reform, someone’s probably going to bring up “that woman who sued McDonald’s over the hot coffee and won four ba-jillion dollars in damages.” (Citation: mental_floss) The popular version of the story has a little something for everyone: a stalwart national company, the apparently absurd premise that someone would object to coffee being served hot, and a cash settlement that was large enough to be memorable.
The decades-old debate about limiting money judgments in civil cases, often points to the world’s most infamous cup of coffee spilled on February 27, 1992, when Stella Liebeck suffered third-degree burns from her spilled cup of joe. In some circles, the McDonald’s coffee case became the paradigm of frivolous lawsuits brought by greedy plaintiffs and greedier trial lawyers who were unfairly affecting the profit margin of model corporate citizens.
While there may be no reliable data about the number of frivolous lawsuits filed each year, according to an article via thedailybeast.com the civil justice system is largely self-regulating and the vast majority of frivolous lawsuits are weeded out early. Tort claims serve the public good. More than simply compensating victims, meritorious lawsuits can force corporate or individual defendants to change or modify the behavior that caused the harm or injury.
Regardless of where you stand on the merits of Liebeck’s legal case and/or the merits of tort reform, it’s hard to deny the sweep of the infamous “coffee case.”
When people bring this up I always tell them that the trial judge reduced the verdict (to $640,000 I believe), and then parties settled for a confidential amount before an appeal was decided. And she was only asking about $20K when she sued them.