The Truth About Health Care and Tort Reform, Part II

(This is the second post in a series. For the first post, see “The Truth About Health Care and Tort Reform, Part I“)

In 1992, tort reform found its poster child in a product liability suit — Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, more commonly known as the McDonald’s Coffee Case. The complainant, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck, spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee on herself and suffered third-degree burns serious enough to require skin grafts.

Initially, Liebeck asked McDonald’s for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses, but McDonald’s offered only $800. Liebeck’s attorney discovered that McDonald’s required its franchises to serve coffee at a scalding hot temperature, and that other customers had received serious burns. A jury eventually awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which was slashed to a little more than $600,000 by the judge. Liebeck eventually settled for an undisclosed amount less than $600,000 after appeals.

The Right seized upon this story as an example of greedy lawyers and litigation-crazed loonies who clog up courts with frivolous suits. The extent of Liebeck’s injuries or the facts of the case didn’t seep into the public consciousness; all most people knew is that some woman got millions of dollars for spilling hot coffee.


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