Lessons from Stella Liebeck

I have a thought. I’m going to share it. It will require some indulgence on an interested reader’s part. Feel free to scroll past.

In the year 1994, when I was in high school, I remember a news story where a woman received a large settlement from the McDonald’s corporation. A few years before, she had been burned by a cup of coffee purchased through the drive-thru and, at trial, the jury awarded her nearly $3 million dollars. If you remember this, you probably think of it as THE example of a frivolous lawsuit that got someone rich back in the days where we talked about frivolous lawsuits a lot.

That was how I saw it as a teenager. Some silly lady burned her hand on the hot coffee she ordered (of course it was hot!) and lived happily ever after swimming in her money like Scrooge McDuck. But there is a lot more to this story, as I later learned in graduate school.

Stella Liebeck was 79 years old when (in a parked car) she spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee on her lap. She was hospitalized for third degree burns which required skin grafts on her inner thighs, leading to a long recovery. She sued McDonald’s and offered to settle the case for $20 thousand, which would have covered medical expenses and lost income. McDonald’s refused and countered with a paltry $800 offer.

Here is the thing you really need to understand about this case. McDonald’s KNEW there was a problem with the coffee. That the operations manual required that the coffee be kept at 180°-190°, a temperature that will cause severe burns in seconds. They had known this for over TEN YEARS. More than 700 people had been badly burned and complained or sued the company. But the company crunched its numbers and knew that it would cost more to make a systematic change to prevent these burns than it cost in legal fees and pay-outs to injured parties every year. Obviously, no change was made.

When Stella’s offer to settle was denied, the case went to court. There, the jury learned that McDonald’s knew about the problem and yet had not been moved to make even minor changes, such warning the customers about the dangerous risk with a sign or label. And they had no plans to make any changes. They wanted to pay off this old lady and get back to business.

That’s why the jury awarded Stella Leibeck her $3 million dollars. Not to reward her for suing a big company, but because the settlement had to be big enough for a huge company to feel it. It was clear that the only way to force this company to make a change was to change the calculation, and that meant that the award had hurt their bottom line.

Where the hell am I going with this?

I spent the weekend in a city that was locked down, not because of the pandemic, but because of riots. I don’t condone violence, of course. (And I understand that the worst damage is often caused by anarchists who show up and protests just to make trouble, and that hurts everyone. But that doesn’t explain all of what has happened all over the country in the last week.) I am seeing and hearing many comments about the vandalism and the damage and this rage response seems to have, at times, become the focus. As opposed to the systematic racism and violence that sparked this reaction in the first place.

We, as a country, had our chance to make a change for the right reasons. We didn’t do it. We have known about police brutality and the way it impacts POCs for a long time. We agree that this is wrong and should stop, but we have done nothing. We have made it clear that we are not an altruistic society looking out for the safety of our citizens, even those living in the most vulnerable populations. We have made it clear that we have no intention to make changes. Not as long as it is easier and cheaper to leave things as they are, and no matter how many peaceful demonstrations (such as kneeling NFL players or interruptions to political speeches by BLM folks, to name just a few) we witness. Throughout our country’s history, change has happened because it became too difficult and expensive NOT to transform. Change happens when someone makes it hurt.

Perhaps, as we watch the flames and anguish on TV, we should stop asking ourselves, “Why do these young hooligans have so little regard for the property and livelihoods of others?” and ask instead if this hurts enough to force a change? Because if it is still easier to do nothing, that just means the price-tag ultimately wasn’t high enough to impact the bottom line. At least, not this time.

About Rachel Lewis

I am a writer, ceramic artist, knitter, and stepmom. As a playwright, I had six short plays produced in showcases and festivals in Manhattan, Salt Lake City, and Austin. My full-length play, Locking Doors, was presented by Wordsmith Theatre Company in The New Lab Theatre (University of Utah) in 2005. I co-wrote a teleplay titled “Thank God I’m Atheist” which won the 2015 “No God But Funny” contest founded by the Center for Inquiry. My short nonfiction essay, “It’s Coming Down,” was published by the online literary magazine Halfway Down the Stairs. My essay "The Red Rock Chronicles" was published in Contemporary West magazine. I currently work in pharmaceuticals professionally and write recreationally, but dream of making the transition to write professionally and do pharmaceuticals recreationally. I am a Utah native and live in Salt Lake City with my family and our Goldendoodle. I am working on a collection of humorous non-fiction essays and a second full-length play. Follow me at: rachelclewis.com @rachel_lewis_ut (Twitter) @rachel_lewis_ut (Instagram)

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