WHENEVER SOMEONE SUES A PROFITABLE COMPANY, you’re bound to find some laypeople who think the lawsuit is a frivolous waste of taxpayer dollars. It’s only a matter of time until someone tries to argue that it’s wasteful to sue a shampoo company for selling you a product that made you go bald. But the Wen lawsuit is legitimate, and you shouldn’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Owner Guthy-Renker markets the Wen “Cleansing Conditioner” as a shampoo alternative that will give users perfect hair, every time, without damaging a single strand. In April 2015, six women filed suit against Hollywood stylist and Wen creator Chaz Dean, alleging that their use of his products resulted in devastating hair loss. By December, more than 200 women were named as plaintiffs. Providing pictures of alopecia-like baldness as a case in point, the suit claims that Wen “cause[s] severe and possibly permanent damage to hair, including hair loss to the point of visible bald spots, severe hair breakage, scalp irritation and rash — even infection.”
Dean denies that his products cause the dramatic effects the plaintiffs’ pictures show. That hasn’t stopped the Bravo star from attempting to settle out of court, however. And testimony from multiple women has not kept unaffiliated detractors from claiming that the lawsuit is “a frivolous cash grab,” as one Redditor put it.
For most people in the U.S., “frivolous lawsuit” brings to mind that money-hungry woman who sued McDonald’s for making her coffee too hot. Har har har, silly woman, not knowing her coffee would be hot. She probably would have sued if it was too cold, too. We’ve all heard the story. Except that the version of the hot coffee lawsuit that entered our cultural consciousness isn’t accurate.
Here’s the real story. In 1992, a 79-year-old passenger named Stella Liebeck ordered a coffee from a McDonald’s drive-thru. After receiving the order, Liebeck’s grandson pulled over in the restaurant parking lot so that she could put cream and sugar in her beverage. The overfilled cup spilled when she removed the lid, and the scalding coffee soaked through her sweatpants and clung to her skin.
McDonald’s corporate policy dictated that coffee should be served at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature that will cause third-degree burns — which Liebeck received — in a matter of seconds. She required skin grafts and debriding treatments. At that time, McDonald’s provided no warning that its coffee was served at a temperature that could injure customers, or that it was substantially hotter than the 135 to 140 degree temperature of coffee served at home.
Liebeck was among some 700 customers who reported coffee-related burns to McDonald’s over the course of a decade. Her lawsuit asked for a meager $20,000 — enough to cover medical bills. When McDonald’s refused to pay even $1000, the case went before judge and jury. At the end of the trial, Liebeck received $160,000 in compensatory damages — reduced from $200,000 because the jury found her to be 20 percent at-fault for the spillage. The jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million dollars in punitive damages, or about two days’ worth of McDonald’s coffee revenue, but the court reduced this amount to $480,000. To avoid further appeals, McDonald’s and Liebeck settled the rest of her case out of court.
In reality, then, the Liebeck case is far from what most would consider frivolous.
No major outlets have accused the plaintiffs in the Wen case of wasting court resources — yet. That doesn’t mean that they won’t. It isn’t beyond the scope of the imagination to foresee bald pundits joking that they should add their names to the suit while simultaneously accusing 200 women of being vain liars who are either unable to use shampoo properly or have shaved their heads in anticipation of a huge payday. There will also, undoubtedly, be those who claim that the unfortunate Wen consumers got what they deserved for being so gullible as to trust in a miracle product.
Look, hundreds of women aren’t going to give themselves terrible haircuts just on the off chance that they might be able to pull a fast one. Hair probably shouldn’t have as much social significance as it does, but the fact remains that how you wear your hair can result in the loss of your job or suspension from school. It’s unreasonable to assume that these women’s lives were not hugely impacted by their hair-loss, or that they would risk their futures to fake their way into court proceedings that could take years to resolve.
Supposing Wen only causes these problems when used improperly — in the same way that depilatory creams can cause chemical burns if not removed within a particular timeframe — it isn’t unreasonable to ask the manufacturer to take responsibility for failing to warn users of the potential for injury by offering financial recuperation to the plaintiffs, adding warning labels to all Wen products, and recalling those that are improperly labeled.
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