REVISITING THE McDONALD’S HOT COFFEE CASE
Many are familiar with the McDonald’s Hot Coffee case – but do you really know what happened?
The facts of the case:
- Liebeck was 79 years old when this incident occurred.
- Liebeck was a passenger in a vehicle driven by her grandson.
- Liebeck’s grandson pulled over and stopped the vehicle so Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee.
- The vehicle had no cup holders so Liebeck placed the cup between her legs.
- While trying to get the lid off, the coffee spilled on her sweatpants, immediately soaking through onto her skin.
- Liebeck went into shock and her grandson rushed her to the hospital.
Stella Liebeck’s injuries:
- Stella Liebeck suffered third-degree burns to her inner thighs, genitalia and groin.
- The third-degree burns covered 6% of her body.
- Lesser serious burns covered 10% of her body.
- She was hospitalized for eight days.
- While in the hospital she lost 20% of her body weight (bringing her down to 83 pounds)
- She endured skin grafts and a procedure where doctors remove dead tissue from a wound, known as debridement.
- The burns also left her with significant scars and partially disabled for two years.
What McDonald’s knew before this incident:
- Before this, McDonald’s had received more than 700 complaints of serious burns caused by their coffee being served too hot.
- McDonald’s policy was to serve coffee at a temperature between 195 and 200 degrees.
- McDonald’s knew this temperature would cause third-degree burns in 7 seconds or less.
Attempts to settle the case:
- Liebeck tried to settle the matter with McDonald’s before hiring a lawyer.
- All she wanted was her medical bills of less than $20,000 at the time but the offer was flat out rejected.
- Liebeck required two more years of additional medical treatment greatly increasing her medical costs.
- After getting a lawyer and mediation was conducted the independent mediator recommended that McDonald’s settle for $225,000.
- McDonald’s rejected the recommendation of the mediator.
The verdict rendered by the jury:
- A trial was eventually held.
- The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 for compensatory damage but found her 20% at fault reducing the award to $160,000.
- The jury also awarded punitive damages of $2.7 million that was equal to about two days of McDonald’s coffee sales profits.
- The trial judge reduced the punitive damages award to $480,000.
- The $480,000 punitive damages award was to punish the company for knowing serving their coffee too hot knowing that people were being injured as a result.
The aftermath of the verdict:
There was an immediate outcry in the media that was fueled by inaccurate reporting and one-sided promotion by insurance companies. Most reported that there was a $2.9 million dollar verdict for simply spilling coffee on yourself.
Now you know the rest of the story. Unfortunately the rest of the story rarely received the publicity of the former story.
So what has changed – not much! McDonald’s has placed warnings on their cups and made their cups more rigid to avoid spilling. People continue to get burned by McDonald’s hot coffee.
Because this case is often still misrepresented we come jurors all the time in trial that bring up the “McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case” as the prime example of a frivolous lawsuit. This proves that once again that big money (that of insurance companies) can mold the minds of the public against plaintiffs—plaintiffs just like Stella Liebeck who deserve and need compensation for harms perpetrated against them by others.
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