Hot Coffee: Looking Back at the McDonalds Lawsuit
It was the coffee spill reported around the world.
Twenty five years ago, a 79-year-old woman named Stella Liebeck bought a cup of coffee to go at a McDonald’s drive-through in Albuquerque, New Mexico and spilled the coffee on her lap.
She sued McDonald’s, and a jury awarded her almost $3 million, prompting a media frenzy and a lot of criticism in the court of public opinion.
“Isn’t coffee always hot?”
“Maybe she should have been more careful!”
Not only did the case inspire a documentary, it was also used as a textbook example for lobbyists trying to get legislation passed to put a cap on jury awards and limit “frivolous” lawsuits.
Here are some facts you might not know about the famous “hot coffee case”:
- The elderly woman was not driving when the coffee spilled. She was in the passenger seat, and the car wasn’t even moving. It was stopped in the parking lot.
- The coffee was more than hot. It was, according to expert testimony, “dangerously hot,” so hot that the sweatpants she was wearing absorbed the coffee and caused third-degree burns — the most severe kind.
- Mrs. Liebeck had to have skin grafts on her thighs and other parts of her body.
- Before the Liebeck case, more than 700 people had reported injuries from the dangerously hot coffee that McDonald’s was serving. The corporation had paid settlements in some cases.
- Mrs. Liebeck initially offered to settle the case for just $20,000 — enough to cover her medical bills and loss of income. McDonald’s would not budge with a higher offer than $800. That’s why the case went to trial.
- McDonald’s admitted in court that the company knew about the risk of injury by serving coffee that hot — between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit — for more than 10 years and never did anything about it.
- McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified at trial that McDonald’s coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into Styrofoam cups, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat.
- Not only did McDonald’s fail to change the temperature requirements for franchises, the corporation also failed to warn customers about the potential risks. The company did not say why it did not warn customers.
- The jury didn’t award the multi-million-dollar verdict for actual damages, i.e. lost income, lost quality of life, medical bills, etc. The big award was for punitive damages — to punish McDonald’s as a corporation for a policy that injured hundreds of people and the company’s unwillingness to change the policy of serving “dangerously hot” coffee.
- The judge on Mrs. Liebeck’s case reduced the jury’s punitive award from $2.8 million to $480,000.
- Mrs. Liebeck did not receive the full amount of the award approved by the judge. She ultimately agreed on a confidential settlement amount from McDonald’s to avoid the lengthy appeals process.
This painful and more-complicated-than-most-people-think story demonstrates that that civil lawsuits brought on behalf of consumers are not always frivolous, and almost always, there is much more that the jury gets to hear than the general public.