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Media distorts facts in high profile cases

In Education, Health, history, National News, Opinion, Politics, Senior Lifestyle, sociology, Uncategorized on July 16, 2013 at 9:40 am

DIH LOGOUnless you’re one of those people who can outwit the trivia nerds on Jeopardy!, you probably don’t remember the name, Stella Liebeck. It’s a sure bet, though, that you more than likely remember hearing of a woman awarded millions after spilling hot McDonald’s coffee on herself while driving – except that’s not exactly what happened.

In 1992, 79-year-old Liebeck sued McDonald’s Corporation after being severely burned by coffee spilled in her lap. Her case drew national attention to the idea of “frivolous lawsuits,” igniting a firestorm of conservative push for swift and devastating tort reform.

For those of you who slept through high school civics class, a tort is a wrongful act or infringement of rights leading to a legal liability. In other words, if someone hurts you in some way and they may be liable for the injury (physical, emotional, financial, or otherwise), that’s called a tort.

Torts exist to help protect the public from the negligence of others, whether the fault of an individual or a business. Without them, no one would ever be held legally accountable for causing accidents and injuries. Like other well-meaning legislation, sometimes greedy people abuse the system – or attempt to – just out to make an easy buck. The majority of, what might be considered “frivolous,” lawsuits die out in the first hearings or are settled out of court to avoid public scrutiny.

With rampant distortion of the facts in the Liebeck case, it’s easy to understand why people really didn’t know what happened and just assumed she was looking for a big payday from a huge corporation. Sadly, the particulars were lost in the hype, turning this poor woman into a media joke, even inspiring a groin-scalding episode of “Seinfeld.”

At the time, the media’s fractured reporting stated Liebeck was herself negligent because she was driving at the time of the spill when, in fact, she was a passenger in a stationary vehicle at the time. It really would have made little difference anyway, since the coffee in question was estimated to have been around 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Medical experts suggest that any skin in contact with liquid of that temperature for more than a few seconds would experience severe burns of, at minimum, second degree and potentially surpassing third.

As it turned out, evidence in the case showed that the fast food giant’s franchisees were required to maintain coffee at a sitting temperature between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit. The searing heat of the fast food giant’s coffee had resulted in hundreds of documented injuries. Liebeck’s burns were located on her inner and back thigh and were so severe as to require a series of major skin grafts over several months and caused agonizing pain.


Initially, the Liebeck’s family wrote a letter to McDonald’s merely asking they cover medical bills for her treatment but with no response, they were forced to take legal action. In the end, the jury found McDonald’s liable for the severity of the injuries due to temperature policy and frequency of documented injuries.

Punitive damages (additional monetary punishment to the wrong-doer) were awarded by the jury in the amount of $2.7 million. That figure was later reduced by the judge to $480,000, but Liebeck eventually settled with McDonald’s for an undisclosed amount.

Sensational news stories like the Liebeck case should always be taken a dose of skepticism because. The court of public opinion can be devastating to a case like this, and like so many more recent ones. No media outlet is fair or balanced and no one reports all the facts because reporters are not privy to everything. Guilt or innocence should be based on the decision of the jury, not the news media.

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