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Hot Coffee

When many people think of frivolous lawsuits, the first thing that comes to mind is hot coffee. More specifically, a lawsuit brought against McDonald’s after a New Mexico woman spilled their coffee on her lap and was subsequently awarded more than 2 million dollars.

Almost twenty years later, its infamy lives on. The hot coffee case is regularly used as an example of how average people have taken advantage of our legal system. Is that a fair assumption, though?

Stella Liebeck, then 79 years old, was in the car with her grandson when she tried to remove the lid from her coffee they had just purchased from the drive-thru to add cream and sugar. When the coffee spilled onto her lap, she was horrifically burned. She suffered 3rd and 4th degree burns (some all the way to the bone) on her thighs and groin. Her burns were so severe that she almost died, and her initial hospitalization was eight days, followed by skin grafts and two years of follow-up treatment.

Initially, Stella and her lawyer simply sought compensation for her medical bills. McDonald’s refused to offer more than an $800 settlement for the $10,500 in medical bills, though, leading her to sue the corporation over the dangerous temperature of the coffee and the defectiveness of its cups.

Bringing a lawsuit against a corporation is often vilified. But let’s not forget that in cases where someone is severely hurt, going to court to gain justice is actually quite heroic.