Trusted Voice® Blog

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Infamous McDonald’s Coffee Spill Case

This August marks the 22nd year anniversary of the verdict in the McDonald’s coffee spill case – one of the most famous and misunderstood cases in American jurisprudence. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me “what about the McDonald’s coffee spill case” when discussing how much their case is worth; in other words, if the lady in the coffee spill case got that much, I should get at least “x” amount for my injury.

Let’s look at the facts. Seventy-nine year old Stella Liebeck purchased a 49 cent cup of coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru window, spilled the coffee on her lap, sued McDonald’s for the injuries, and was awarded 2.9 million by a jury.  People were shocked and outraged.  The verdict was mocked on T.V., radio, and in the print media.  The case became known as the “million- dollar coffee spill.”  Anti-lawyer sentiment skyrocketed.  The “million-dollar coffee spill” symbolized everything wrong with the current legal system – frivolous lawsuits, greedy lawyers and clients, and out-of-control juries.  Right?

Not quite.  Here’s the whole story: McDonald’s served its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees –scalding hot by industry standards (coffee brewed at home is typically 135 to 140 degrees); a doctor testified it takes less than 3 seconds to produce a third degree burn at 190 degrees; McDonald’s admitted consumers were unaware of the risk posed by the scalding hot coffee and that it was “not fit for consumption” when sold; McDonald’s intentionally served its coffee at these high temperatures to maintain optimal taste; a McDonald’s executive testified that McDonald’s knew its coffee caused serious burns, decided not to warn customers about the danger, and didn’t intend to make any changes; in fact, in the ten years preceding the case, McDonald’s had received over 700 complaints of burns from its coffee (some of which involved children and infants) and paid out over $500,000 to settle claims; Ms. Liebeck suffered gruesome third degree burns on her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas, and underwent debridement treatments (removal of dead tissue) and skin grafting; McDonald’s rejected several offers to settle the case for a fraction of the verdict (her lawyer said he would have taken $150,000); Liebeck was only awarded $200,000 for pain and suffering (reduced to $160,000); the remaining 2.7 million was awarded by the jury in the form of punitive damages to punish McDonald’s for engaging in conduct deemed to be “willful, reckless, malicious or wanton”; in arriving at 2.7 million, the jury took into consideration the fact that McDonald’s sold 1.35 million dollars of coffee per day and, thus, 2.7 million equaled two days of McDonald’s coffee sales; Liebeck did not get the 2.7 million; that amount was reduced by the judge after trial to $480,000.  McDonald’s appealed, and the parties thereafter entered a confidential settlement.   

As the foregoing demonstrates, the McDonald’s case is not the “poster child” of frivolous lawsuits as it was portrayed to be.  Rather, it’s a case about a huge corporation that knew its product was dangerous as served and had seriously injured consumers, yet made a conscious business decision to do nothing about it.  As one juror put it, the case was about “callous disregard for the safety of the people.”   

The case is also a good example of how the media sensationalizes things and even engages in misleading and deceptive reporting.  The consequences of this were far reaching.  Capitalizing on the anti-lawsuit hysteria the case produced, corporations and the insurance industry launched a tort reform campaign that resulted in 30 states placing unreasonable limits on pain and suffering awards in personal injury cases, even though Liebeck was only awarded $160,000 for pain and suffering. 

Some lessons from this case: things are not always as they first appear; and, lawyers took a bad rap here they did not deserve. 

I represent clients in all types of dangerous product cases (often referred to as product liability cases) and would be honored to represent you.  

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