Tuesday, May. 19, 2009

What You Want Isn't What You Get

In 1992, Stella Liebeck, then 79, was in the passenger seat of her parked car when she spilled a scalding 49¢ cup of McDonald's coffee on her lap, causing third-degree burns that required skin grafts and two years of treatment. After attempting to settle with McDonald's for $20,000 — enough, she said, to cover her medical costs — Liebeck brought the case to court in 1994 when the fast-food giant countered by offering a paltry $800. Although a jury awarded Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages, McDonald's and Liebeck reached an undisclosed out-of-court settlement to preclude the possibility of appeals.

Liebeck's lawsuit became a media sensation — and, fairly or otherwise, transformed her into the poster child for frivolous lawsuits. Today Liebeck is the namesake for the Stella Awards, which are distributed annually to the most laughable legal claims. Perhaps the most unfortunate part of the crazy clash is that Liebeck, who died in 2004 at the age of 91, didn't live to see the addition of iced coffee to McDonald's menu.