Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, better known as the “McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case” is perhaps the most infamous civil lawsuit in modern history. A case frequently ridiculed by insurance industry lobbyists and their cronies pushing for tort reform, it has had a significant impact on the way personal injury cases are viewed by the general public.
But in reality, the plaintiff’s case was anything but ridiculous, as I have repeatedly heard it called. Certain details of this case have been strategically kept out of the public eye. Here are a few of them:
1. The Car Wasn’t Moving
You likely know that then-79-year-old Stella Liebeck was in a car when she purchased the now-famous cup of coffee from a drive-through window, and that she was still in the car when she removed the lid to add cream and sugar. The details that are often conveniently left out are that the car was parked when the injury occurred, and that Liebeck’s grandson was in the driver’s seat, with Liebeck next to him in the passenger seat. When Liebeck removed the lid, she accidentally tipped the cup backward toward herself, spilling the coffee into her lap. So it is true that Liebeck was at least partially responsible for the spill (and the jury did acknowledge this), but to say that she was driving while trying to doctor the coffee is plainly false.
2. It Wasn’t Just Any Burn
Yes, we have all burnt our tongues on a hot cup of coffee from time to time. Regardless, I would venture to say that few of us will ever experience the amount of pain that Liebeck did. When the spill occurred, the scalding liquid was absorbed by the fabric of her sweatpants, which held it tight against her skin, covering her inner thighs and groin. She suffered severe burns, including 3rd degree burns that covered six percent of her body, which could not heal without extensive and costly skin grafts and whirlpool treatments. She was hospitalized for eight days and disabled for the following two years. Her treating physician later testified that hers was one of the worst scald burns he had ever seen.
3. McDonald’s Knew Exactly How Dangerous Their Actions Were
In fact, with full knowledge of how dangerous this policy was, they enforced it. McDonald’s admitted to requiring employees to hold coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit, well aware that it would hurt people at this temperature. They argued that most of their customers were commuters who wanted their coffee to still be hot when they reached their destination, several minutes later. This was debunked, however, by the company’s own research. What is even more shocking is that they not only knew coffee at this temperature would hurt people–they knew that it was hurting people. In the decade leading up to the 1994 jury verdict, McDonald’s had already settled hundreds of cases of people being severely burned by their coffee, including young children, and at least one consumer whose coffee was accidentally dropped into their lap by a company employee. Despite knowing that this was going on, McDonald’s determined that it was more profitable for them to continue settling cases than to change their harmful policy. So they didn’t.
Today, they have lowered their required holding temperature by only 10 degrees.
4. Compensatory and Punitive Damages
In order to know the full story of this case, you need to understand these terms. Liebeck and her counsel asked for $200,000 to fully compensate the losses she suffered because of her injury–these were the compensatory damages. So why, you might be asking, was she awarded $2.5 million more than what she required compensation for? The answer is, because that $2.5 million was never about what Liebeck deserved. It was about what McDonald’s deserved. That extra amount–what the fast food giant would have earned in about two days, on coffee sales alone–was in punitive damages, which are exactly what they sound like: they punish defendants for unacceptable behavior. The jury determined McDonald’s should pay that amount as a consequence for consistently disregarding the safety of their customers. Sometimes, this is the only way to get the attention of corporate wrong-doers.
5. She Didn’t Receive Three Million Dollars
The jury awarded Liebeck $2.7 million reduced from $2.86 million in combined compensatory and punitive damages, because Liebeck was found to be partially at fault for the spill. The Judge later reduced the full amount Liebeck would receive to $480,000, less than a quarter of what the jury awarded her, and the plaintiff and defendant later settled on an undisclosed amount which is still unknown. At the very beginning of her case proceedings, Liebeck asked for a measly $20,000, which is unlikely to have covered all of her medical expenses, let alone pain and suffering. McDonald’s never offered her more than $800, displaying what even the Judge called “reckless, callous, and willful” behavior.
6. The Reason You’ve Been Misinformed
The reason is obvious, once you know the facts: powerful corporations get angry when they are held responsible for their reckless behavior, and they don’t want something like this to happen to them again. They have widely publicized inaccurate information and unwarranted ridicule on this case, in order to precondition potential jurors in future cases all over the country. This is why big business seized on Liebeck vs. McDonald’s, making sure that Stella Liebeck herself was publicly demonized and personal injury as well as product liability cases branded as frivolous.
Whether or not you agree with the jury verdict in the Liebeck case, I urge you to learn the facts before your opinion on any civil case is set in stone. You never know when coverage has been distorted.
If you have questions about personal injury or product liability, or have a case of your own, please contact me on my website, or give me a call at (312) 258-8188.