What is a Frivolous Lawsuit? Revisiting the McDonald’s Coffee Case

We hear a lot about frivolous lawsuits and the havoc they supposedly wreck on – well – everything, if the politicians and pundits are to be believed. But, what is a “frivolous lawsuit”? I’ve never heard anyone try to define what this means. Maybe it’s one of those things that we think we will recognize when we see or hear about it.

From a legal standpoint, a frivolous lawsuit would be one that is without any merit. Someone making a legal claim has the burden of proving his or her case. If there is no evidence to support the claim, it could be said to be without merit or frivolous. These cases generally do not get to a jury because there are various procedures the Court uses to dismiss such claims.

Many of us think the McDonald’s coffee case is the perfect example of a frivolous claim. What we heard in the media was that a lady spilled hot coffee on herself and a jury gave her millions. That just sounds wrong. Why would a jury of twelve supposedly rational people make someone who has made a frivolous claim rich? The answer is simple – because there is a whole lot more to the story than you probably heard about in the media.

In the McDonald’s case, evidence was presented that McDonald’s sold coffee at a temperature that was higher than industry average and that, at the temperature at which it was served, it was too hot to be consumed – it would cause 3rd degree burns within seconds. Evidence was also presented that approximately 700 McDonald’s customers had suffered burns from spilled coffee in the ten years before the plaintiff in the case, Stella Liebeck, was injured. In some of those cases, McDonald’s had paid as much as $500,000 to settle claims.

Mrs. Liebeck who was seated in the passenger seat of a car did, indeed, put the coffee cup between her legs to open the lid. When the coffee spilled, she suffered 3rd degree burns to her thighs, groin and abdomen – approximately 6% of her body. She had lesser burns to 16% of her body. She was hospitalized for eight days and underwent several surgeries.

Her attempt to settle her case with McDonald’s for about $20,000, representing her medical bills, was unsuccessful. McDonald’s offered her $800, so she hired a lawyer. Before trial, a judge recommended settlement of $225,000, but McDonald’s also refused that recommendation.

At trial, the McDonald’s defended the case on the grounds that people like coffee they way they serve it, as proven by the fact that each day McDonald’s sells $1.35 million worth of coffee. McDonald’s admitted, however, that it had never tested whether decreasing the temperature of the coffee to a safer level would impact the amount of coffee it sold. This admission was critical because, in a previous case McDonald’s settled with another burn victim, it had promised to do such testing.

After hearing the evidence, a jury awarded Mrs. Liebeck $200,000 for her injuries, a figure that was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found that she was 20% responsible for causing the injury.

The jury felt that, at a minimum, McDonald’s should do the market testing it had promised to do when it settled that earlier case. Because it had broken that promise and because it knew that customers were regularly suffering serious burns from its coffee, the jury decided McDonald’s deserved to be punished. It awarded Mrs. Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages. How did it reach that figure? It penalized McDonald’s the equivalent of two days’ coffee sales.

After trial, the judge reduced the punitive damage award to $480,000, for a total verdict of $640,000. McDonald’s appealed and the case was settled for a confidential amount widely rumored to be less than $600,000.

I would hope that most would agree that Mrs. Liebeck did not file a frivolous lawsuit. She suffered a serious injury and there was evidence that McDonald’s had not acted responsibly in how it served its coffee. A jury found the evidence presented on her behalf compelling. What it did in response, when put into context, made a great deal of sense and represented a very modest punishment of McDonald’s. Furthermore, when the argument was made that the jury’s verdict was excessive, that problem was appropriately addressed by the trial court judge, who substantially reduced it.

Although you wouldn’t know it by what you hear in the media, our civil justice system works very well. There are checks and balances built into the system which generally ferret out claims that do not have any merit and to limit the amount of damages a plaintiff receives to what is fair and just compensation based on the nature and extent of the injury suffered.

The next time you hear talk about a “frivolous lawsuit,” I hope you will remember the McDonald’s coffee case and, at least, wonder about the information you are not being provided about what happened.