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The Truth of the McDonald’s Burn Case

We all remember the big McDonalds coffee case.  It became viral in the 1990s in time before the term “viral” was forged into a social phenomenon.  It was featured in Dave Letterman’s top 10 list and used as evidence for tort reform. The case became the poster child for “frivolous lawsuits”.

But like most personal injury cases, a closer look reveals there is more to this story.

During that time there was a lot of negativity towards 79-year-old Stella Liebeck, the victim, and plaintiff in the case. The media portrayed corporations as the victim and people like Mrs. Liebeck as abusers using lawsuits for personal gain. It isn’t until you really evaluate the situations and misconceptions in the case that the truth is spilled surrounding the hot coffee lawsuit.

It was painted in the press that Ms. Liebeck had spilled the coffee on herself due to irresponsible driving. Turns out that she had been taken to the McDonalds by her grandson and was in the passenger seat. Her grandson stopped just feet after the drive-through window and parked in a parking spot to let Ms. Liebeck put some cream and sugar in the coffee.

She placed the coffee cup in-between her legs and attempted to remove the lid. Unfortunately, her action spilled the coffee onto her lap, causing severe third-degree burns that required immediate medical attention, and 8 days in the hospital. This injury caused permanent damage to Ms. Liebeck’s legs and was partially disabled for 2 years after the incident.

The total medical bills for Ms. Liebeck included the $10,500 in past expenses for the burn treatments she received and about $2500 for future care. She reached out to McDonald’s to settle the case immediately if they would pay her medical bills. They instead sent her a check for $800 and refused to raise their offer any higher. As this was remarkably lower than the medical bill amount, she obtained an attorney and went to court.

Again Ms. Liebeck and her attorney, Reed Morgan, tried to settle the case before going into court, but McDonald’s refused.

So, what is the reason for the lawsuit? At the surface, it would seem that Ms. Liebeck caused the burns herself by spilling the coffee – and the jury in the case did attribute about 20% responsibility to her for this. But the case wasn’t about the spill, it was about the temperature that McDonald’s served their coffee. At an astonishing 180 degrees Fahrenheit on average, and sometimes up to 190 degrees, the coffee was being served WAY TOO HOT, almost near the boiling point. Liquids at this temperature can cause 3rd-degree burns within seconds.

Thermometer Graphic

McDonald’s apparently knew that this was unsafe. In the decade before Liebeck’s spill, McDonald’s had received 700 reports of people burning themselves. They admitted that the temperature of the coffee was a hazard to people, but continued to practice the policy of heating the coffee to near boiling-point temperatures.

Again, all Ms. Liebeck wanted was for McDonald’s to pay her medical bills, which had reached a total of $20,000 by the end of the case. After hearing the evidence, the jury concluded that McDonald’s handling of its coffee was so irresponsible that Liebeck should get more than the $20,000 for her bills, but instead nearly $2.9 million to send the company a message. Liebeck settled the case for less than $600,000 and McDonald’s began changing how it heats its coffee.

The famous McDonald's coffee case is a case study as to why there are fewer frivolous lawsuits than we sometimes imagine.

The entire purpose of the court system is to determine whether a case has merit or not. If this case had not been a significant and worthwhile matter, the Court would have likely dismissed it.  Judges have immense discretion and do not want to waste their time nor jurors’ time. There are certainly cases that are filed with absolutely no merit; these cases should of course not be allowed to move forward. But this is no excuse to prevent people with real injuries to pursue rightful compensation due to the negligence of others.

It is important to let a personal injury litigation attorney, not just a “settlement attorney”, take a close look at your case to determine the options available to you.  Like Stella Liebeck, you may find there is more to your case than just spilled hot coffee.

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