The McDonald’s hot coffee case is often used as an example of frivolous litigation. However, the case is far more complex then many people realize, and the final decision didn’t leave a woman who spilled coffee in her lap a millionaire.
The Spill Heard Round the Courts
The incident occurred in Albuquerque, New Mexico on February 27, 1992. Stella Liebeck, 79, was a passenger in a car that lacked cup holders. The driver of the car parked so she could add cream and sugar to the coffee she’d gotten at the drive through window. She held the cup between her knees and pulled the lid toward her. During this process, the entire cup of coffee spilled in her lap, soaking the cotton sweatpants she was wearing. The fabric absorbed the hot coffee and caused scalding on Ms. Liebeck’s thighs, groin and buttocks.
It was determined at the hospital that Ms. Liebeck had suffered third-degree burns on approximately six percent of her skin. She remained in the hospital for eight days and had skin grafts.
Efforts to Settle the Case
Ms. Liebeck’s treatments lasted for two years, and initially, she asked McDonald’s for $20,000. McDonald’s refused and countered with an offer of $800. The parties went back and forth with offers during a mediation process that ultimately failed when McDonald’s refused a final offer of $225,000.
Ms. Leibeck’s attorneys argued that the coffee McDonald’s served was far too hot and could, at temperatures as high as 190 degrees, cause serious burns in a matter of seconds. The attorneys for McDonald’s countered that the coffee was served at that temperature because commuters wanted to drive a long distance with the coffee and have it remain hot until they reached their destination.
The jury ultimately awarded Ms. Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. The judge reduced the entire award to $640,000. Both sides appealed, but the case settled out of court for an undisclosed amount that is thought to be less than $600,000.
Nobody lost or made a fortune on this case. Ms. Liebeck was seriously injured and made an effort to settle out of court. McDonald’s sites a lack of communication as the reason for the outcome. McDonald’s continues to serve coffee at the same temperatures that injured Ms. Liebeck. However, the cup is sturdier and the warning is in bigger print.
The urban legend of a 9 million dollar award has since served as fodder for critics of injury attorneys, but the reality is that it represents a case of the system working to protect consumers like Ms. Liebeck, and the companies that serve them. And whether you choose a personal injury attorney in Toledo or your area, you could be due payment if you’re in a similar situation. While little seems to have changed besides the McDonalds cups, a recent suit with similar details might build on the legacy of the Liebeck case, and win more protection for consumers.