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Serious Burn Injury – The Myth of the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case

by on Wednesday, March 2, 2011  —  Blog, Firm News, Interesting Legal Issues relating to Personal Injury, Legislatives Updates and Legal News

For years I have heard people use the McDonald’s coffee case as the poster-child of what’s wrong with America jurisprudence. I often hear comments like:  “A woman spilled coffee on herself while she was driving and then blamed McDonald’s and got millions of dollars, how ridiculous!” 

The Insurance and Big business lobby shouts that greedy plaintiffs are driving insurance costs up and then point to the McDonald’s coffee case as an example. Being a Plaintiffs Personal Injury attorney I know that insurance companies don’t hand over millions of dollars without staunchly defending their ground.  I also know that insurance companies hire seasoned trial lawyers to defend serious injury claims.  So what I was hearing in the media about the McDonald’s coffee case  just didn’t add up.

When doing jury voir dire in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Polk Counties (Interviewing the jury prior to a personal injury or wrongful death trial) the attorneys in our firm repeatedly noticed comments from potential jurors about “that ridiculous verdict” in the McDonald’s coffee case.  The McDonald’s case was filed in New Mexico, thousands of miles away but was regularly affecting us in trials right here in Tampa, Bartow, and St. Petersburg Florida.

After investigating the particulars we came to the startling reality that the insurance lobby was seriously distorting the truth. We read the actual case and other related articles which pointed to some interesting and compelling facts.  We want to set the record straight: 

Plaintiff:    The plaintiff was a 79 year old woman named Stella Liebeck. 

Location:   In 1992 Stella was riding as a passenger in a vehicle driven by her grandson in Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

The Scene:   Ms. Liebeck and her grandson pulled into a drive thru at a local McDonald’s Restaurant.  After purchasing the coffee, the grandson pulled the car to a nearby curb and stopped the car so Ms Liebeck could add sugar and cream to her coffee.  Stella was holding the cup between her legs.  When she removed the lid from the cup it turned over and spilled into her lap.

What happened – The Facts: 

Was the car stopped?

Fiction:    I always hear “the car was moving” when Stella spilled the coffee.  Not true! 

Truth:      The car was stopped.

Was Stella seriously injured?

Fiction:  Stella only suffered minor injuries.

Truth:     Stella suffered 3rd degree burns over 16% of her body.  The burns were to her inner thighs, buttocks, perineum, and genital and groin area.  The burns went as deep as her bone.  She was wearing sweatpants which were literally burned into her skin.

 Did Stella require hospitalization?

Fiction:    Stella didn’t require hospitalization.

Truth:      Stella was in the hospital for 8 days and underwent multiple debridement and skin-grafting surgeries.

Did Stella ever try to settle this for a lesser sum of money?

Fiction:    Stella never tried to settle the case. 

Truth:    There was an early attempt to settle for the medical bills of approximately $11,000.  Later Ms. Liebeck offered to settle for $90,000. McDonald’s generously offered $800.

In 1993 Stella filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s alleging that the coffee was exceptionally hot and that she wasn’t warned about the extreme temperature.  During the trial it came out that McDonald’s was aware of over 700 similar claims and had paid out over $500,000 to settle other burn claims.  There was testimony that with this knowledge McDonald’s could have easily solved the problem by turning down the temperature. Yet they refused! McDonald’s seemingly took the attitude that the profits from serving “hot” coffee outweighed the claims they may have to pay. 

 Was the coffee too hot?+

Myth:   The coffee was not too hot

Truth:  Testimony showed that the coffee was heated to 180 to 190.  At 180 degrees, liquids can cause burns to human skin in 2 to 7 seconds. Coffee served at home is generally 135 degrees. Many commercial establishements serve coffee in the range of 130 degrees to 140 degrees.  A burn risk exists with any coffee over 140 degrees.

Myth:    McDonalds was not on notice that there coffee was causing burns

Truth:   There was 700 other coffee burn cases that McDonald’s was aware of.

Myth:   Stella received $2,700,000 in compensatory damages. 

Truth:   Actually Stella was only awarded $200,000 which was later reduced by the Judge to $160,000.  The trial Judge reduced the $2,700,000 punitive damages to $480,000.  Punitive damages were put in place to  punish corporations for bad acts.   Consequently the bulk of any punitive damage award in the State of  New Mexico goes to the State of New Mexico.      

Obviously, there is much more to this case than the “stigma” applied by insurance industry.  The insurance industry has spent millions of dollars distorting theis story to advance tort reform.  Don’t buy the 30 second sound bites.  Arm yourself with the facts.

If you or a family member need assistance with any serious injury please contact us at 1-888-WE-MEAN-IT  or fill out the contact form on this page.