Leading Article: Some use crying over spilt coffee

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The Independent Online
WE ARE, in general, in favour of old ladies. True, they occasionally slow you down on escalators or in revolving doors, but their quiet dignity, helpful health tips and gentle smiles more than compensate. So we have nothing personal against Stella Liebeck, 81, of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Mrs Liebeck, as we report elsewhere in the newspaper, is a former shop assistant who happened to buy a cup of coffee at a drive-in McDonald's in her home town and then spilt it over herself. The coffee was very hot; Mrs Liebeck was badly burnt. So she sued McDonald's and the jury awarded her dollars 2.9m.

Initially, the jurors considered punitive damages of dollars 9.6m because McDonald's serves its coffee 20 degrees higher than anybody else, but they settled for a figure equivalent to two days' sales world-wide of McDonald's coffee. As it happens, we like our coffee milky, tepid and with three sugars; and we only like McDonald's hamburgers with an awful lot of ketchup. Even so, dollars 2.9m takes some swallowing. No doubt Mrs Liebeck's children are pleased for her and no doubt octogenarians all over America are weighing up the odds of a gingerly slip on a dill pickle.

Things have certainly changed in the land of doughtily independent pioneers since Mrs Liebeck was a girl. Juries are always prodigal with the money of others, but the belief, increasingly mirrored here, that compensation is available from some source for all life's vicissitudes is peculiar to the late 20th century. Having abolished God, we now want to abolish Fate. On Friday, in New York, the employers of an executive who groped at a secretary's breasts were ordered to pay dollars 7.1m. These employers are the world's largest law firm. Things may be about to change.