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Aaron House

The Truth About the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Lawsuit – What Really Happened

The infamous McDonald’s Hot Coffee Lawsuit is often lauded as an example of “frivolous lawsuits” brought by people who are just trying to scam businesses into paying them money.  The insurance industry and the Chamber of Commerce have worked very hard to use this lawsuit to make people in the United States believe that tort reform is needed to reign in large awards from juries.  However, many commentators as well as most members of the public are unfamiliar with the true facts and nature of the case in Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants

In 1994, Stella Lieback, a 79 year old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, ordered a cup of coffee from a McDonald’s drive through.  She was sitting in the passenger seat of a car that contained no cup holders. Her grandson was driving the car and had pulled to a stop in the McDonald’s parking lot so that she could add cream and sugar to her coffee before drinking it.  Ms. Lieback placed the coffee cup between her knees and pulled back the lid in order to do so. In the process she spilled the coffee over her lap and groin. Because she was wearing cotton sweatpants, her pants absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin resulting in third-degree burns to her thighs, buttox, and groin.  Ms. Lieback required an 8-day hospitalization wherein she underwent painful wound debridement, received skin grafts, and lost approximately 20% of her body weight. After her hospitalization she required three weeks of round the clock care, which was provided to her by her daughter. After her initial recovery period, she was partially disabled for two years and suffered from permanent disfigurement.

Ms. Liebeck initially sought to settle with McDonalds for the amount of $20,000 to cover her previously incurred medical expenses, her future anticipated medical expenses, and the wages lost by her daughter as a result of the care she provided to Ms. Liebeck.  But, McDonalds refused to offer anything over $800, and Ms. Liebeck was forced to hire an attorney who brought a products liability case against McDonald’s. Ms. Liebeck’s attorney argued that the restaurant chain was grossly negligent for selling coffee that was an unreasonably dangerous temperature.  McDonald’s then refused all pre-trial settlement offers including a mediator suggested amount of $225,000.

A 10-day trial took place during which evidence was introduced that McDonald’s required its coffee to be served at a temperature between 180 and 190 degrees.  Ms. Liebeck’s attorney argued that coffee should never be served at a temperature hotter than 140 degrees and that when testing samples of coffee served all over town, it was served everywhere else at a temperature at least 20 degrees cooler than that from McDonald’s.  Testimony was also offered showing that third-degree burns would result on a person’s skin after between three and fifteen seconds when served at McDonald’s required temperatures.

During the trial it came to light that between 1982 and 1992, McDonalds had received over 700 reports of people burned by McDonald’s coffee and had settled over $500,000 in claims from these injuries.  McDonald’s quality control manager testified that this number of injuries was insignificant when compared to the millions of cups of coffee served by McDonald’s and did not support a change in company practices.  However, these claims showed that McDonalds knew or should have known about the dangers associated with the temperature of the coffee they served. The quality control manager conceded, however, that if coffee was consumed by customers immediately upon being served, that it was hot enough to scald the mouth and throat.

The jury ended up awarding Ms. Liebeck $2.86 million in damages which was ultimately reduced by the judge to $640,000.  This contained a punitive damage amount of $2.7 million which amounted to merely two days of coffee sales for McDonalds. To avoid further litigation through numerous appeals, the parties later settled for an undisclosed amount.  In post-trial interviews, jurors commented that it was significant to them that over 700 cases had been brought about McDonald’s coffee but that McDonald’s failed to see the person behind the claims when deciding not to lower the temperature of the coffee.

Some of these facts may be surprising to many readers.  Some believed that Ms. Liebeck was sitting in the driver’s seat at the time she spilled the coffee.  Many even believed that the car was in motion at the time, although this was not the case. When taking a closer look at the facts of the case, it becomes clear that the jury reached the right decision.  Ms. Liebeck’s injuries were severe, attempts were made for a reasonable settlement offer, the jury concluded that McDonald’s actions were unreasonable and awarded Ms. Liebeck actual and punitive damages for her suffering.

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