I love history. I find it fascinating. What I don’t love, however, is when history is distorted and manipulated to serve an unjust end- when those with power, influence, and money manipulate the facts to their own benefit it prevents justice. That makes me mad.

I have a burn case. My client was on his way to visit his terminally ill mother. She only had a week or two left to live and he wanted to say his final goodbyes. My client and his wife went to the airport. They stopped and bought a sandwich and some hot tea. At the table, the tea spilled on my client’s lap. Nobody alleges that someone else spilled the tea and my client readily admits either he or his wife either hit the cup or bumped the table and that caused the tea to spill.

The tea immediately burned his wrist and thigh. Severely. Not a “rub some ice on it and you’ll be fine” kind of burn. By the time he landed in one of his layover cities he needed surgery on the burns. This prevented him from getting to his mother who died about a week later. To this day he still feels the guilt and pain of not having the chance to say goodbye to his mom.

I can’t think about his case without thinking of Stella Liebeck. She was severely burned by a cup of McDonald’s hot coffee. Stella and her case became the poster child for big business, insurance, and the medical insurance lobbies to scare the general public into believing that there are too many frivolous law suits and people who are hurt by others should have their damages limited. They distorted the facts and the media let them.

Most people believe the following because of the distorted facts and flat out omissions:

– Stella was driving and spilled hot coffee on herself.

– She was awarded millions of dollars because her tricky lawyer convinced a stupid and gullible jury to give her millions of dollars.

– The system is completely broken and if you want a quick buck give yourself a boo-boo and spill hot coffee on yourself.

Here are the actual facts of Stella’s case:

– Stella was not driving when the coffee spilled on her. She was a passenger in a stopped car being driven by her nephew. The car didn’t have any cupholders. Stella put the coffee between her legs and the coffee spilled.

– Before Stella’s incident, McDonald’s had 700 complaints of customers suffering significant burns due to their coffee being too hot and did nothing to remedy it.

– Stella suffered significant third degree burns that required surgery.

– When asked about the fact there were 700 other reported burns a McDonald’s representative stated he was “glad it was not more” and admitted that customers shouldn’t drink coffee as hot as McDonald’s serves it because they would get burned.

– Stella’s offered to settle the case for $20,000- the amount of medical bills her insurance didn’t cover. McDonald’s offered her $800.

– The jury found McDonald’s acted with disregard for Stella’s safety and awarded punitive damage of $2,700,000 equaled just two days of coffee sales for McDonalds. This award was reduced almost 80% by the Court based on New Mexico law.

– The jury found Stella 20% at fault. Thus, the $160,000 she received for her medical bills and pain and suffering was reduced by 20%.

For years, Stella was the butt of jokes. Seinfeld, the Simpsons, late night talk show hosts all poked fun at her without knowing or caring to know the true facts of this case. Stella became the poster child of “frivolous lawsuits.” Her case was manipulated by big business and insurance to implement caps on damages which prevent the juries from assessing fair and full damages for those who have been injured. Stella didn’t receive millions of dollars for spilling hot coffee on herself. She was found by a jury to have been injured because McDonald’s didn’t care about its customers’ safety and did nothing even though it knew its coffee was dangerously hot.

There was a wonderful documentary that came out in 2011 about Stella’s case and the myths that surround it. Hot Coffee. I don’t own any rights to this, but here is a link to the movie. It’s worth a watch.

The attached article from 2011 in The Atlantic does a wonderful job addressing the falsehoods big business and insurance perpetrated on the public after this case. Again, I have no ownership in this article.

It is a shame that even now, over 30 years later, people view Stella and her case as a symbol of “what is wrong” with our system of civil justice. The truth is that Stella’s case is a symbol of what is right with the system. There are rules in place to stop frivolous law suits. There are rules in place to make sure judgments are fair based on the law and facts. There are checks and balances in our system that help to ensure fairness. What isn’t fair is when those with power, influence, and money are allowed to distort the truth so that regular folks like Stella, like you, are denied a fair shake.