The Truth About Health Care and Tort Reform, Part II

How -- and why -- powerful special interests manipulate public opinion on many issues, including tort reform.


(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.


Barbara O'Brien is the owner/proprietor of The Mahablog. She writes about Buddhism for and and now blogs on behalf of the Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Center on their new mesothelioma blog. She has guest blogged at the Take Back America Conference and for Crooks and Liars.
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