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“The McDonald’s Coffee Spill Case” by James H. Lawlor, III

Published on February 6th, 2014

It seems everyone has heard of the infamous “McDonald’s Coffee Case.” Indeed, Stella Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, is often cited by proponents of “tort reform” whenever they are pushing for restrictions on the rights of injured parties.

Very few people know the facts of the case. Everyone knows that the coffee is hot, and it seems hard to believe that the injured woman in the McDonald’s coffee case was awarded a large sum for spilling hot coffee on herself. Were these jurors wrong? Judge for yourself. The incident occurred in 1994 and involved a 79-year-old grandmother named Stella Liebeck. Ms. Liebeck ordered coffee from the drive-through window of a McDonald’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Ms. Liebeck was not driving; she was a passenger in the vehicle. While the vehicle was at a complete stop, and the coffee cup was being held between her legs, Ms. Liebeck attempted to remove the lid of cup. The coffee spilled on her legs and groin area, causing gruesome third degree burns to her body. The treatment of these injuries required an extensive hospital stay, multiple skin grafting procedures to her female region and over two years of follow up treatment.

Her injuries were more severe than one might expect from a coffee spill. The jury heard the evidence that McDonald’s, unlike its competitors, had a policy of serving its coffee at temperatures of 180- to 190 degrees, a temperature hot enough to scald human flesh. Normally, coffee is served at approximately 130- 140 degrees. The evidence presented to the jury was that liquids served at temperature above 140 degrees can exponentially increase the risk of burns to the skin if spilled. McDonald’s had received over 700 customer complaints prior to Stellas’s injury and some of those claims involved third-degree burn injuries similar to those sustained by Ms. Liebeck.

Ms. Liebeck wanted to settle with McDonald’s for somewhere near the cost of her medical bills but McDonald’s offered only $800 and forced her to go to trial. The jury awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages, roughly the company’s profits from one day’s sale of coffee. The award insinuates that she pocketed a huge windfall. In truth, she did not and the civil justice system worked very well. Damages were reduced by 20% because the jury found that 20% of the fault was attributed to her. Additionally, although the trial judge categorized the actions of McDonald’s as reckless, callous, and willful, he reduced the punitive damages to $480,000 or three times the amount of the compensatory damages. After the ruling, the parties entered into an undisclosed settlement which some believe was less than $500,000 to avoid the time delay of further appeals.

The facts of this case stand in stark contrast to the often-repeated version. McDonald’s now serves its coffee at lower, safer temperatures. This case also serves as a lesson that the judge and jury system generally work well, and that it is important to hear all of the facts before making assumptions about injury lawsuits.

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