Even though it happened in 1994, it's a case that people still talk about. When discussing frivolous lawsuits that should not have won, the McDonald's Coffee Case most likely comes to mind. Most people find it preposterous that someone can spill coffee on themselves, turn around to sue McDonalds, and win an estimated $2.7 million in a court settlement. For what? It's coffee. She should have known it was hot. She spilled the coffee on herself, right? What if we told you that is not the whole story? What you don't know about this case will probably make you change your stance.
Everyone's false impression of this case can be blamed directly on the media. When word got out about the size of the award, the media sensationalized the story and formed your opinion for you, rather than present you with all the facts and allow you to form your own opinion. From that point on, the case and the victim became the target of endless criticism and scorn. The case was even mocked in an episode of the Seinfeld TV show.
In reality, the case happened much differently than what was represented in the media, or what you may have heard on the street. In Albuquerque, NM, Stella Liebeck and her grandson ordered breakfast with coffee at a McDonald's drive-thru. Her grandson was driving and Mrs. Liebeck was in the front passenger seat. After receiving their order, they pulled the car into a parking spot next to the drive-thru exit. While parked, Mrs. Leibeck placed the coffee between her knees to hold it while she added the cream and sugar. There were no cup holders in the vehicle. While attempting to remove the lid, the coffee spilled into her crotch area. The burns were gruesome. She ultimately sustained third degree burns between her legs that totaled over 16% of her body. Multiple skin grafts were required.
While undergoing treatment for the severe injuries, her medical expenses became insurmountable. A family member suggested that they approach McDonald's for assistance in paying those medical bills. McDonald's offered an insulting $800 towards a medical bill that was over $10,000 and still growing. At that point, it became clear that McDonald's was not willing to negotiate and that a lawsuit would be necessary to recover from the medical expenses.
During the trial, it was revealed that it was McDonald's procedure to serve their coffee 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit. At those temperatures, the coffee would not be consumable without causing severe internal burns. Exposure to skin at those temperatures can cause third degree burns in 2-7 seconds. The most important factor in the case was that McDonald's had received over 700 previous complaints from consumers who had issues with the temperature of their coffee. A McDonald's witness testified that there were no plans to adjust the temperature of the coffee. This blatant and consistent disregard for consumer safety is what ultimately decided the outcome of the case.
Mrs. Leibeck was awarded $160,000 to cover her medical expenses. Additionally, even though she did not request it in her lawsuit, the jury awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages. The jury's goal in awarding such a large punitive damages payment was to send a wake-up call to McDonald's about their long history of neglectful consumer safety procedures. Unfortunately, the best way to get the attention of a large corporation, like McDonald's, is to affect their income. The jury decided that the amount of the award should be two days' worth of McDonald's coffee sales. Later on, the judge decided that the punitive damages award was too large, and reduced it to $480,000. Mrs. Leibeck later settled for an undisclosed amount. Even though the purpose in the lawsuit was merely to cover medical bills, this elderly, 79-year-old woman, became the target of ridicule, because of the large amount of money she was awarded.
Stella Leibeck died in 2004, but her legacy lives on. Unfortunately, she is not remembered as the victim who bravely battled a large corporation's neglectful practices. Instead, she is remembered as the poster child for frivolous lawsuits. Her name continues to be mocked to this day, because of the sensationalized information fed to the public. Her bravery should be applauded for refusing to allow McDonald's to take advantage of another consumer. Soon after the case settled, the same McDonald's was found to have adjusted the temperature of their coffee to a safer 158 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you had not heard all the facts of the case, you probably felt that the case was ridiculous, like most of the public felt. Now that you know the full story behind this case, does it change your stance? If this story interests you, watch the documentary titled "Hot Coffee" for more details about this case and other controversial cases.