The case of Stella Liebeck vs. McDonald’s, more commonly referred to as the hot coffee case, remains one of the most famous tort cases of all time. The case made national and even international headlines, spurred a whole reform movement in the arena of personal injury law, and became the punch line for late-night television, sitcoms, and even music videos. Stella Lieback’s case became the most frequently cited example of how citizens take advantage of the American legal system. It was viewed as the epitome of the frivolous lawsuit. Most people asked to recite the facts of the case would say it involved a woman who ordered hot coffee, spilled it on herself, then sued and won millions of dollars from industry giant McDonald’s. However, the reality of the case differs greatly from the story put forth by the media.
The following is a look at the reality behind the McDonald’s hot coffee case: Back in 1992, Stella Liebeck was 79 years old. She was riding in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car when the two went through the McDonald’s drive thru to pick up coffee. Mrs. Liebeck’s grandson pulled over and came to a complete stop. Mrs. Liebeck, who was not driving, attempted to remove the lid on her coffee so that she could add cream and sugar. As she removed the lid, she spilled the entire cup on her lap.
- Stella Liebeck received third degree burns over 6% of her skin and lesser burns over 16% of her body. Graphic photographs of the burns can be found online.
- She required skin grafts and debridement.
- She spent eight days in the hospital.
- Over the next two years, Mrs. Liebeck required ongoing treatment.
- Mrs. Liebeck originally asked McDonald’s to settle the case for $20,000 but they rejected this proposal.
- McDonald’s admitted to over 700 similar complaints during trial preparation.
- McDonald’s revealed that it served its coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees, far exceeding the average temperature of coffee brewed at home, which is between 135 to 140 degrees.
- The judge in the case ordered mediation, during which the mediator suggested McDonald’s settle the case for $225,000. They again refused.
- An expert at trial testified that had the coffee been served at 155 degrees or less, Mrs. Liebeck would not have been seriously burned.
- Burn institutes had published warnings to the fast food industry to decrease the temperature of coffee served.
- A doctor testified that 180 degree liquid causes third degree burns in less than 15 seconds.
- A McDonald’s executive testified at trial that McDonald’s was aware of the danger that its coffee could cause serious burns but made the decision not to lower the temperature.
- While the media reported Mrs. Liebeck received millions of dollars, she was in fact awarded less than $200,000 in actual damages.
- The jury awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages but the award was later reduced to $480,000.
- Mrs. Liebeck and McDonald’s ultimately reached a final settlement outside of court, and the exact payout is unknown but estimated to be in the ballpark of $600,000.
Mrs. Liebeck stated publically that her motivation for the suit was never financial. Rather, she wanted Mc Donald’s to bring down the temperature of its coffee so that no one else got hurt. Mrs. Liebeck was unable to speak out about the facts of the case because she signed a confidentiality agreement during settlement.
At John D. Giddens Law Firm, we have seen firsthand the tremendous positive impact personal injury suits can have on injured clients and society as a whole. Punitive damages against large companies like McDonald’s are designed to punish companies for failing to protect their consumers. Without such suits, millions more would be injured due to company negligence. If you have experienced an injury at the hands of another individual or company, the Giddens Law Firm can help you achieve a full and complete recovery. Contact us today at (601) 355-2022 to schedule a free and completely confidential initial consultation.