Angelica Keller was on a Southwest flight to Houston last December when she ordered a cup of tea from the attendant.
Since she was in the front row, Keller, 43, did not have a drop-down tray, and spilled the steaming hot water on her lap.
Keller, a construction worker from Georgia, suffered second-degree burns and blisters, according to her attorney Rob Anderson, who filed an $800,000 negligence lawsuit against Southwest Airlines.
If this story sounds familiar, there’s a reason, says Bobby Allyn of the Detroit Free Press. Although the drink has changed, the case is similar to one in 1992 in which a woman won a settlement from McDonalds after spilling a hot cup of coffee on herself. That case became famous after defense attorneys and business interests, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, began citing it as an example of excessive greed and abuse in the legal system. But the facts and outcome of that case were distorted, many legal experts say, by misleading information.
Since then, many states have passed tort reform legislation to reduce frivolous lawsuits and runaway jury awards, which cost states millions of dollars annually. Hundreds of plaintiffs file civil lawsuits every year. While the facts in each case vary widely, and some are rejected outright by judges and juries, advocates of tort reform frequently cite the McDonald’s suit to illustrate the need for change. Few come as close as Keller’s, though, to the legendary McDonalds’s case.
“It’s natural for people who think they know the facts of one case to hear another and draw a correlation,” said local attorney John Day. “But the hot coffee case is often invoked to make people have doubts about the civil justice system.”
Southwest attorneys recently filed a response to Keller’s lawsuit, stating that she chose her own seat, knew there was no drop-down tray, and ordered the hot tea herself. Keller, therefore, was “negligent” when she spilled the hot tea, according to the response.
The lawsuit does not indicate the temperature of the tea, only that it was “extremely hot,” and “too hot for use in an aircraft.”
Neither side would comment on the case.
About $300,000 of the $800,000 Keller is seeking includes damages for pain and suffering, which is subjective and hard to measure.
Whether there should be limits on damages for pain and suffering, and if so how much, has long been politically charged. Since the early 1990s, lawsuit reform has been a rallying cry for Republicans. Or, as then-President George H.W. Bush, said in 1992, “We must sue each other less and care for each other more.” On the flip-side of the argument, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson has strongly opposed tort reform, breaking from GOP ranks on the issue. Thompson, a lawyer and former presidential candidate, maintains that it contradicts long-standing conservative values about state and individual rights.
Advocates of tort reform often point to excessive jury verdicts to illustrate their point. They cite many other examples — including a $22 million award to a Chattanooga couple after a woman became paralyzed following a medical error — as evidence that juries have run wild. They contend that frivolous lawsuits drive up medical costs, make malpractice insurance prohibitively expensive, and that lawyers file claims in jurisdictions that tend to be unsympathetic to to businesses. It is also presented as an economic development issue. With states competing for new business and jobs, they say, legal costs are a huge consideration.”One important factor in whether businesses expand and invest is whether states have a stable and predictable legal environment,” said attorney Lee Barfield, who represents business interests. “Caps make awards more predictable.”
Doctor recruitment is also affected, as doctors who work in critical care prefer states with liability limits. A 2001 study by Albert Yoon published in the American Law and Economics Review looked at whether damage awards dropped in Alabama while the state had caps.
Compared with other Southern states that did not have damage caps, Alabama awards, on average, decreased by $20,000. The average awards, Yoon found, nearly doubled after the state’s high court banned caps as unconstitutional.
The 2011 documentary film “Hot Coffee” attempted to debunk the myths surrounding the famous McDonald’s case.
For example, many believe Stella Liebeck, the plaintiff, was driving when she spilled the coffee. In fact, her grandson had been driving and the car was parked. The coffee had been served at around 180 degrees, 40 degrees hotter than most standardcoffee. The burns necessitated skin grafts across her body. Liebeck originally asked for just $20,000, enough to cover her medical expenses. McDonald’s offered $800.
In spite of the headline-grabbing $2.7 million award granted, a judge later reduced it to $640,000 — and the final amount was reduced even further in an undisclosed settlement Daniel Clayton, a Tennessee medical malpractice attorney, said that propaganda about the case has helped push public opinion in favor of lawsuit reform. Many people, he said, do not fully grasp its implications for people claiming injury.
Those implications easily could come into play with Keller’s case. Jurors may be reminded of the McDonald’s case, even as they confront a different set of facts. Whether they ultimately conclude that the fault lies with Keller or Southwest Airlines, trial lawyers say the wave of lawsuit reform inspired by the McDonald’s case has damaged the civil justice system. Said Clayton, “It ends up hurting those who are hurt the most.”