Updated: Jan 12
"It’s not like I’m suing over hot coffee or something."
As personal injury lawyers, we hear these exact words all the time. New clients feel the need to explain that they are seeking justice, not filing frivolous lawsuits. This is understandable, because everyone has heard of the woman who sued McDonald's because it served its coffee hot.
But there are two things people miss about the infamous case of the hot coffee:
The hot coffee case was about a lot more than hot coffee. It has saved many of from totally unnecessary—and very dangerous—burns.
MGL doesn’t take frivolous lawsuits, because we don’t believe anyone should file a frivolous lawsuit, and because we would quickly go out of business if we did.
The Hot Coffee Case
The infamous hot coffee case is often viewed as a perfect illustration of the frivolity of the law and the ability people have to sue for anything. It’s tossed out as an example of judicial overreach and human greed. But in reality, this case represents an important judicial decision that righted a wrong—one that was impacting many in the larger community of McDonald's patrons.
If you’re one of the doubters (or haters!) about the McDonald’s case, read on to understand the broader context of this case and the judicial process.
Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old of Albuquerque, New Mexico, bought a cup of hot coffee at a McDonald’s and climbed into the passenger seat of her grandson’s car. Before the car moved, she removed the lid of the coffee to add sugar and cream and accidentally tipped the cup over, emptying the contents onto her lap. Her sweatpants then soaked up the liquid, keeping the extremely hot liquid touching her skin.
Liebeck sustained major burns covering her lower half, including her thighs, buttocks, groin and genital area. According to her surgeons, the coffee burned about six percent of her total body surface. Most of these burns were categorized as full thickness burns and required skin grafting. Liebeck was in the hospital for eight days after the incident to receive medical treatment.
Now, everyone knows that coffee is hot—it’s supposed to be! But spilling coffee on yourself does not usually cause your skin to burn completely through. It doesn’t usually require skin harvesting from other parts of your body to cover up the full-thickness wounds left by the burns.
So why did McDonald's’ coffee cause these horrific injuries? It turned out that McDonalds kept its coffee at 190 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at the time it spilled on Liebeck’s lap. That’s much too hot to drink. (It would burn through the skin of your mouth, just as it did the skin of Ms. Liebeck’s groin and legs.) In homes, coffee is usually served between 135-140 degrees.
Ms. Liebeck decided to sue McDonald’s and was willing to settle for $20,000 dollars, probably about the cost of her medical treatment. But McDonald’s decided to fight the lawsuit. It is important to note that Liebeck took responsibility for the spill, but wanted McDonald's to take responsibility for the unreasonable temperature of the coffee itself.
In the initial discovery phase of the case, many interesting things came to light. One of these facts was that 700 claims had been made against McDonald's between 1982-1992, all alleging that the restaurant’s coffee had burned people. Some of those people had received full thickness burns similar to those of Liebeck.
This information was evidence that McDonald's should have known about the danger of their coffee and its extreme temperatures. After being presented with this information, McDonalds admitted that they kept their coffee between 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit, at the recommendation of consultants, because it provided for the best taste.
The company also admitted that they were basing these temperatures off the fact that people would drink their coffee once they got to work or their homes, but that they did know that people usually drank the coffee in their cars and admittedly had not done research about the dangerous effects of these high temperatures.
For McDonald’s, the most damaging part of the trial came from the testimony of their quality assurance manager, who admitted that McDonald’s kept its coffee between 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit and that anything over 140 degrees Fahrenheit was known to have the potential to burn a victim's throat and mouth. He said that consumers should not and were not meant to be drinking coffee at that temperature but that McDonald's had no plan to lower the temperature of its coffee.
The jury in Ms. Liebeck’s case awarded her with $200,000 in compensatory damages, which was then reduced to $160,000 because Liebeck was responsible for 20% of the injury by spilling the coffee. The jury also determined that McDonald’s needed to serve coffee safely and that in order to get this message across, McDonald’s should forfeit two days’ worth of coffee sales. Two days’ sales amounted to $2.7 million.
The amount of money awarded to Liebeck, the $2.7 million, was the piece of information that drew much public criticism to this case. There was public outrage, arguing that the compensation in the case was too much, and that this was just another example of the inefficiency and unjust nature of the judicial system. With the impact of the press and public opinion spilling into the courtroom, the judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000. The judge also concluded that McDonald’s conduct was, "reckless, callous, and willful."
In the end, Liebeck entered into a settlement and the amount that she received was probably lessened even more. The final settlement number was kept a secret and has never been revealed to the public, which is often the case in court proceedings.
What Does This Case Show Us?
This case is a good example of a personal injury case that had a very high monetary award, but resulted in an overall safer product. So maybe this case isn’t as frivolous as was once thought...
If you or a loved one are in need of a personal injury lawyer, contact Meub, Gallivan and Larson. We are here to help!