Looking Back on the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case

Looking Back on the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case

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Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants is one of the most polarizing lawsuits of all time, defining the divide between plaintiff’s attorneys and tort reform activists. But it’s also one of the most misunderstood.

Back in February of 1992, 79-year-old Ms. Liebeck was in the passenger’s seat of a car, assembling her morning coffee, having just gone through the drive-thru of McDonald’s with her nephew. Given that her nephew’s car, a Ford Probe, had no flat surfaces (or cup-holders!) on or in which to place her coffee while she rummaged through the bag for cream and sugar, Ms. Liebeck did what we’ve all done countless times – she held the cup of coffee between her knees.

However, when she went to remove the lid from the top of the coffee, the cup fell backward, cascading 8 ounces of piping hot coffee onto her inner-thighs and groin area, scorching right through her sweatpants and mutilating her skin. The cotton sweatpants absorbed the blistering liquid and kept it pressed up against the skin, much the way that a wet towel clings to the body around which it is draped.

Ms. Liebeck suffered third-degree burns to her thighs, buttocks and groin area. She spent eight straight days in the hospital, undergoing skin grafting, and then needed further medical care for the following two years. (We’ve spared you the gruesome photos here, but a simple Google Images search for “Stella Liebeck burns” will give you photographic evidence of the graphic, horrifying injuries Ms. Liebeck sustained.)

Faced with unbearable pain, burdensome medical expenses and lost wages (in addition to immeasurable pain and suffering), Liebeck sought to settle with McDonald’s for just $20,000, chump change in comparison to her true losses. What was McDonald’s response? $800.00. Yes, that’s right. Eight-hundred dollars. Despite receiving nearly a thousand complaints about the temperature of their coffee prior to the Liebeck incident, McDonald’s refused to own-up to what had happened. Because of their refusal to “properly” compensate Ms. Liebeck, Liebeck sued McDonald’s Restaurants in anything but a frivolous lawsuit.

Eventually, a jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $2.9 million dollars, an amount often touted as evidence for the decay of the legal system; an amount often propagandized by tort reform activists who claim Liebeck was one of many who try to get rich by using the justice system. The truth is, most of the people who find the jury award absurd have never seen the photos of Ms. Liebeck’s injuries.

That piping hot 49-cent cup of coffee didn’t have to cost McDonald’s nearly $3 million, but that’s how much they ended up paying-out because of their deplorable treatment of Ms. Liebeck, who fell victim to their negligent business practices.

Unfortunately, many coffee chains continue to brew and serve coffee at temperatures equal to or higher than the temperature of the cup of coffee that burned Ms. Liebeck so badly.

In addition to urging you to use caution when consuming hot beverages, we also urge you to use caution when criticizing or scoffing at personal injury cases such as Ms. Liebeck’s. Would you be so hostile about the situation if it happened to be your family member who was mutilated by such unreasonably hot coffee contained in such a flimsy paper cup?

If you’ve been injured, whether by the wrongdoing of an individual or the wrongdoing of a major corporation such as McDonald’s, please let us know. Reach out to us for a free consultation by calling 561-266-9191 or emailing us at daronberg@build.simple.biz.

We recommend:

The HBO film Hot Coffee.

This Forbes article.

This NY Times article.