You have heard about the woman who sued McDonalds and won $2.7 million after spilling a cup of coffee in her own lap. It became an exhibit in how we desperately needed tort reform. And yet the judgment made a lot of sense to anyone who actually went and learned the facts of the case.
Stella Liebeck didn’t actually get $2.7 million. She wound up with $480,000. But the original verdict was for (very real) medical expenses and two days of coffee sales for McDonalds as a way of saying the fast food chain needed to change its behavior.
And they did! They stopped serving coffee at a temperature that immediately caused third degree burns. By dialing it back to 158 °F there’s 60 seconds – or enough time to react to a spill and avoid burns.
McDonald’s in Bangkok
Leibeck wasn’t driving. The vehicle was stopped. She removed the coffee lid to add cream and sugar. The coffee spill caused extensive burns to her legs and groin. She needed skin grafts.
McDonald’s had received hundreds of documented complaints about the dangerous temperature at which they were serving coffee, and they conceded it was at a temperature where it couldn’t be consumed immediately. The jury found McDonald’s negligent.
A woman flying Korean Air flight 85 from New York JFK to Seoul Incheon last October is suing the carrier because a flight attendant “spilled a… cup of boiling hot coffee on [her] lap, causing her to sustain grievous personal injuries near her genital area, with attendant special damage.”
The lawsuit, which was just filed in New York State Supreme Court, says the passenger became “sick, sore, lame and disabled” and that her injuries are permanent.
Stella Liebeck spilled the coffee on herself. Korean Air spilled it on the passenger. That seems worse. And airlines are strictly liable for injuries on board. From an ethical standpoint, it seems to me relevant whether the proper coffee pots were catered (United once chose not to take a delay for proper coffee pots, and spilled a makeshift one) and the temperature at which coffee was spilled.
Korean has had several hot beverage spill injuries, for instance being sued in 2022 over tea spilled in a passenger’s lap burning ‘the area in between’ the woman’s thighs, which cased “permanent cosmetic deformity and scarring.” And in 2017 a lawsuit claimed that a flight attendant burned a passenger by serving a hot beverage during turbulence.
Complaints about tort law are usually that judgments are too punitive against companies, not that they aren’t punitive enough. Lawsuits are frequently more effective than legislators and regulators in generating changed behavior, and companies have a harder time lobbying jury vedicts than capturing the latter. Stella Liebec deserved her tort judgment against McDonalds. Was Korean Air at fault here, too?
(HT: Paul H)