‘Tort’ The hot coffee lawsuit

    Edited by: Vaani Garg

    McDonald’s one of the world’s most famous fast-food chains, which serves more than 68 Million People every day. Why this fact is important for us? We all love McDonald’s right? But wait, do we know that in the year 1992 a lady name Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old from New Mexico, ordered a cup of hot coffee from a drive-through at a local McDonald’s restaurant. Mrs. Liebeck accidentally spilled the entire cup of hot coffee on her lap. 

    How often we burn ourselves every day and it just doesn’t bother us, well that’s not the case with everyone, at least not with Mrs. Liebeck because she was taken to the hospital, where she found out that she had suffered third-degree burns. After getting treated for around eight days and weeks of bed rest she decided to file a case against McDonald’s Restaurants, and that is where this case got its famous name “McDonald’s coffee case” or“The hot coffee lawsuit” with the original name Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, August 18, 1994. The case was a product liability lawsuit where the judge had decided that both the parties will engage in a settlement. The jury’s consensual judgment was wholly based on the duty of care. The settlement was not less than $600,000 (the original amount remains undisclosed) Later on, McDonald’s took some remedial measures as an aftermath of this lawsuit. This case still has its controversies but it occurred at a perfect time for TORT LAW reform. Yes, ‘TORT’, any other law could be used right? No, Tort law is one of the laws that deal with civil wrong and morals. But what does Tort even mean?

    The term ‘Tort’ is a French equivalent of the English word ‘wrong’ and Roman term ‘delict’. It is derived from the Latin word ‘Tortum’ which means ‘twisted’. The law of tort itself means that breach of some duty, without an independent contract, arises out of a civil cause of action for which compensation is recoverable ( In the above-mentioned case of McDonald’s breach of duty and negligence took place, without any independent contract, that arose out of the civil cause of action to which compensation was provided by the court). The basic aim of this law is that ‘no one should be harmed by the actions of others’ because there is a duty of care toward everybody. Many genius minds tried to give a proper definition to the word ‘tort’ but it still awaits. As of now, a general definition would make you understand the meaning, According to Salmond, “Tort is a civil wrong for which the remedy is a common-law action for unliquidated damages, and which is not exclusively the breach of a contract or the breach of a trust, or other merely equitable obligation”.

    When we are talking about ‘Tort law’ there are few main elements that should be proven by the plaintiff (the one who had filed the case) in the court of law so that the justice can be provided. 

    • First any individual, company, or institution sued or accused in a court of law should have a certain legal duty or act to carry in a certain way. 
    • Second, it should be proven that the accused has breached his duty of care or has shown negligence and failed to act in a certain manner .
    • Third and the last, the plaintiff has to provide the proof of the loss/injury suffered as the result of the negligence of the accused.

    Wrongful actions are those when the act of other has invaded the private rights of oneself. These rights could be rights of good reputation, rights of bodily safety and freedom or the Right of property. Not all wrongful actions cannot be considered a Tort. To call it a wrongful act, it should have the following points-

    • First, the wrongful act should be done by the accused
    • Second, the plaintiff has to have suffered some kind of damages
    • The last one, the act that took place must be of certain kind of nature which had given rise to legal remedy in a form of an action against damages. 

    For example, if fire breaks out in your neighbour’s house while he/she is away for work, you decided to stop it from spreading as it could destroy the whole neighborhood. You enter his property and do whatever you can to stop it. Now, your act is not wrongful because you entered the property in good faith and the damages took place because of fire. So all actions are not wrongful, sometimes morals and faith do come in play. In the end, I hope this article gave you a fair idea as to what ‘Law of Tort’ or ‘Tort’ is and how it can be applied even for someone not from a law background.