“Good” Victims and Hot Coffee

At this point we have all heard of both James Kirkland Batson and Clarence Earl Gideon and their respective cases. One person’s name you may have not heard of is Stella Liebeck. Her case may not have been criminal in nature, and her case was never going to make it to the Supreme Court, but I think she has something in common with Gideon and Batson.

And in fact, you probably have heard of Stella Liebeck’s case, but you most likely did not associate her name with her case. You already know the story. A woman spills coffee, which of course, is hot, on herself. Then, the woman sues McDonalds for millions of dollars and wins. And now frivolous lawsuits are out of control. 

Stella Liebeck was the plaintiff in the McDonalds hot coffee case, but that story you have heard does not even scratch the surface of the truth. The reason the story above is the one everyone knows is because of corporate smear campaign and the media bought it. We have been tricked, yet we still believe this case is the poster-child for lawsuits run amok.

The fact is McDonalds was serving their coffee at near boiling temperatures. And over the years this practice had burned hundreds of people with seemingly no consequences. Liebeck was hospitalized for eight days and had to undergo skin grafting during that time. She subsequently underwent medical treatment for another two years. (Source)

Liebeck was even unwilling to sue McDonalds initially. All she wanted was McDonalds to cover her actual out-of-pocket medical expenses, which amounted to $20,000. McDonalds offered her $800, and they refused to offer a penny more. Stella had no choice but to take McDonalds to court.

The truth is, Stella Liebeck is a hero. Not only was her claim completely valid, it was her case that brought to light a clearly unsafe business practice and the practice stopped before it killed someone. She was a working-class victim, and she took on a multi-billion-dollar corporation and won.

Stella Liebeck took on seemingly impossible odds and overcame those odds; however, Liebeck never received the acclaim she is due. She passed away in 2004.

What Liebeck has in common with Batson and Gideon is the fact that she was not necessarily a “good” victim. Batson and Gideon were criminals who were being tried for crimes they allegedly committed, and Liebeck through her own fault spilled the hot coffee on herself.

But the facts show Batson, Gideon, and Liebeck were victims who realized they had been wronged. And it was their cases that made the world a better place, even in some small manner, and even if it was not their goal to.

Reading the excerpt from Sally Engle Merry’s Rights Talk and the Experience of Law for class on Monday helped me understand the way society has treated Liebeck, as well as Batson and Gideon. I believe her exploration and explanation of the distinct experience for “good” victims and “bad” victims are part of the reason they are not viewed as heroes. 

I chose to write my last blog post on this subject because I believe it is important to note that the criminal justice system is not perfect. And while change can be achieved through it, you might still get dragged through the mud in the end. Batson and Gideon are not widely considered heroes who took on the criminal justice system, and Liebeck is not considered a hero at all, even though she did what seemed impossible.

However, as we learn about cases like these and these individuals I hope we remember that even if the odds are against us, we should not give up. That is what I believe is the real takeaway from these stories, even if some may never see it that way. 

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2 Responses to “Good” Victims and Hot Coffee

  1. theruraljuror says:

    Thank you for this post. I’ve been feeling very cynical as of late, and you’ve reminded me that even though this system is in many ways stacked against the average person there are ways to navigate it to our advantage. However, I’d be curious to know how many people have ended up on the opposite side of this scenario. How many people stuck with the $800 compensation and then either couldn’t or just simply didn’t pursue further action. How could we make the courts more accessible to the average person? SHOULD they be more accessible to the average person? In some ways I can see the benefits of a more inclusive and easily navigatable system, but I feel like what we’ve seen about public defenders makes it a little harder to justify adding more cases to the system as a whole. Either way, I really appreciate this post, it’s really been thought provoking.

  2. brendanfoley1 says:

    This post does a great job in highlighting the disparity between society’s views of “good” and “bad” victims and the (hopefully) impartial courts. This reminds me of the debate about whether the court should consider public opinion in their ruling that we discussed after reading the Speluncean Explorers. The examples you cited make it pretty apparent that the public opinion is not always based on actual fact or sound logic, and is usually subject to bias. Just because the majority of the population believes that someone is guilty or that a law is just does not mean that a judge or jury should necessarily agree, as they are obligated to analyze the law and base their verdict on the facts of the case while the general public has no such obligation.

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