Ask the Hammer

A long overdue apology to Stella Liebeck

Sure, we all read or listen to news reports about events that contain factoids which may, or may not, be true. And those facts may remain with you, as part of your opinions formed as a result.

How often have you heard about some issue through the media and then gone on to disseminate that story to others and then, like the proverbial L’Oreal ad on TV, they told their friends who told their friends and…so on? Only afterwards, often long afterwards,  you learn facts not included in the original news story that contradict, in whole or in part, your previously believed opinion.

It can take years, maybe decades, to rectify the story first heard but usually the damage has been long done and will never get to everyone who only chose to get caught up in the 1st version.

And we all too often make snap decisions without either knowing, or bothering to find out, the truth.

Trump fake news of course is all the rage currently, but think about those convicted on circumstantial evidence only to be vindicated decades later by DNA testing. Or about those not known until DNA testing or until victims finally come forward.

But what scares me most is any part I played in any story whose truth or circumstance I only knew a snippet about. For example, take the 1994 McDonald’s “Hot Coffee” lawsuit of Stella Liebeck, then 79 years old, who became the face of frivolous litigation in the U.S.  I too was of the opinion that no one should be able to sue for spilling hot coffee on themselves, let alone get a $2.9 Million jury verdict! But before you read on, and if you remember hearing of this story, think about how you reacted to this news and what if anything you and your circle of friends opined about it.

Okay, now for some tidbits.

In the 2016 HBO documentary “Hot Coffee” numerous everyday people were asked what they “knew” about the incident. Most had differing takes on the “facts” as they had heard them and believed:

  • Not like the employee spilled the coffee on her;
  • people are just greedy;
  • she was driving the car and trying to drink the coffee;
  • the lid popped open and spilled on her;
  • she dumped it on herself;
  • she was going through the drive-thru.

But the actual facts turned out to be as follows:

  • McDonald’s had already received over 700 “hot” coffee complaints;
  • she wasn’t driving (her nephew was behind the wheel);
  • they were parked;
  • the coffee was between 180° – 190° as regulated by the McDonald’s Operations and Training policy manual;
  • Stella Liebeck was covered front and back with 3rd degree burns necessitating surgery and skin grafts (you can Google the burn pictures).

If you believed, as did I, that the lawsuit was a joke (based on the reports you heard at the time) and don’t change your opinion after seeing the photos, well maybe you work for McDonald’s Management.

To add insult to injury, a Judge reversed the jury verdict and reduced the sum awarded for punitive damages to $480,000.00 and this even though he concluded McDonald’s had engaged in “wilful, wanton and reckless” behaviour. Justice? I think not.

Contrary to the U.S., all our Provinces have enacted legislation to allow the Government to go after “Big Tobacco” to claim back health care costs. And in the 2015 Quebec suits against that industry Judge Brian Riordan awarded almost 1 million qualified participants $15.6 Billion! That’s Justice.

Great, but if you are simply the victim of bodily injury (not car related) in Quebec, don’t expect awards such as those you hear about South of the boarder.

Justice – she needs help!

Me. Hammerschmid has practiced Family Law since 1982; Senior Partner at Hammerschmid & Associates; founding & current member of Family Law Association of Quebec (past Secretary for 28 years). Inquiries treated confidentially: 514-846-1013 or [email protected] © 2016 Linda Hammerschmid 

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