Liebeck v. McDonald’s: Far from Frivolous

Liebeck v. McDonald’s may be one of the most well-known but least understood cases in American history. You’ve probably heard of it: a woman spilled hot coffee from McDonald’s on herself, sued McDonald’s, and got a significant amount in damages. The specifics of the case, however, are frequently overlooked. Let’s set the record straight.

The 2011 documentary Hot Coffee explores the truth behind the infamous lawsuit. 

The Facts

In 1992 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck was sitting in the passenger’s seat of her nephew’s parked car. The two had just purchased breakfast from a McDonald’s drive-thru and had pulled into the restaurant’s parking lot to enjoy their meal. Stella placed her Styrofoam cup of coffee between her legs and attempted to remove the lid. In the process of removing the lid, Stella spilled the scalding coffee on her lap. Within seconds, Stella received third-degree burns that landed her in the hospital for eight days, required skin grafting, and led to two years of recovery.

The “Facts”

Not surprisingly, the media sensationalized the case for all it was worth, and it quickly became a prime example of the “frivolous” lawsuits America is notorious for. What was actually a straightforward products liability case became a tale of one woman’s attempt to use the judicial system as a get-rich-quick scheme against a corporate giant. Even now, you may be wondering how McDonald’s could be liable for Stella’s injuries if she spilled coffee on herself. In fact, McDonald’s knew their coffee was a liability.

The Coffee

At the time of the incident, McDonald’s intentionally served their coffee hot—like, really hot. The chain was preparing and serving their coffee at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit; that’s just 22 degrees shy of boiling. For comparison, the average coffeemaker produces coffee around a much more tolerable 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The company admitted that its dangerously hot coffee had caused 700 people to experience severe burns within a decade prior to Stella’s case, but claimed that the number of incidents was insignificant compared to their total coffee sales.

The Money

One of the many misunderstood parts of this case is the money. Contrary to popular belief, Stella didn’t ask for much in damages. Her initial request was a modest $20,000 to cover medical expenses and lost income. McDonald’s countered with a measly $800 offer. Stella and her attorneys tried to resolve the matter for a reasonable sum before the case made its way to trial. It was a jury that valued Stella’s compensatory damages at $200,000 (though they were reduced to $160,000 to account for Stella’s comparative fault) and punitive damages at $2.7 million. The presiding judge reduced the award of punitive damages to $480,000, and the parties later settled for an undisclosed amount (though it’s rumored to be less than $500,000).

The Bottom Line

Stella didn’t work the system. Rather, she was severely injured and sought recovery from the entity that injured her. There is nothing frivolous about seeking justice where justice so requires.

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