There are few lawsuits as famous—or as misunderstood—as the “McDonald’s hot coffee case,” Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants. This case has been held out as the poster child for “frivolous lawsuits” and “runaway juries” since it was decided in 1994. Many people cannot comprehend why plaintiff Stella Liebeck would win her lawsuit at all, much less be awarded $2.86 million by the jury.
The answer is that what most people think they know about the case … is simply wrong.
Let’s compare the real facts of the case to the popular myths about it to search for the truth behind the case.
Myth #1: The plaintiff spilled her coffee when she was driving her car through McDonald’s drive-through.
Fact #1: Not only was Mrs. Liebeck not driving the vehicle, but her grandson, who was driving, had pulled the car over and parked so that she could add cream and sugar to the coffee. When she pulled the lid off, the steaming contents of the cup went in her lap.
Myth #2: The plaintiff really wasn’t hurt that badly.
Fact #2: Mrs. Liebeck was severely injured, suffering second- and third-degree burns over her thighs, buttocks, genitals and groin area. Her burns required debridement and skin grafting; she sustained severe disfigurement and permanent scarring. She was in the hospital eight days and incurred $10,500.00 in medical bills, with more anticipated in the future.
Myth #3: The plaintiff just wanted to get rich quick off a giant corporation with deep pockets.
Fact #3: Mrs. Liebeck just wanted her medical bills paid. She offered to settle for $20,000. McDonald’s offered her $800, treating it like a “nuisance settlement.” Needing her out-of-pocket expenses paid, Mrs. Liebeck then hired a personal injury lawyer.
Myth #4: McDonald’s was held 100% at fault and the plaintiff walked away with millions.
Fact #4: The jury found McDonald’s 80% at fault and Mrs. Liebeck 20% at fault. They awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages for her injuries, which was reduced 20% to $160,000. The jury awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages, to punish McDonald’s for its actions, but the judge reduced this award to $480,000, for a total of $640,000. Both parties appealed and ended up settling for an undisclosed amount, reported to be less than $600,000.
Myth #5: McDonald’s did nothing wrong; everyone knows coffee is hot.
Fact #5: McDonald’s had a corporate policy of serving scalding coffee that they knew was too hot to drink and would cause third-degree burns in as little as two seconds. McDonald’s had received over 700 complaints of burns and had previously settled claims from scalding injuries for more than $500,000. However, their representatives testified that the number of prior coffee burn victims was statistically trivial in comparison to the number of cups sold, not high enough to justify changing the serving temperature, and they had no plans to reduce the temperature—despite past injuries and the future injuries that were bound to occur.
What’s the Takeaway?
Even knowing the facts, not everyone will agree with the jury’s decision in the McDonald’s coffee case. But now you can form an opinion based on facts instead of myths.
If you live in the Marietta, GA area and think you’ve been injured due to corporate negligence, contact a personal injury lawyer right away. Personal injury cases are restricted by a statute of limitations.
Don’t wait until your case has gone cold—call a personal injury lawyer today.