The Truth About The McDonalds Coffee Case

There is a lot of talk in the media and by many politicians about so-called ‘tort reform” as the answer to many of our economic troubles.  If only you could stop everyone from running to the courthouse door every time something minor happens, and if only we could keep juries from awarding huge sums of money to plaintiffs, we would be a much better society.  But the recent HBO documentary Hot Coffee blasts through these myths.

Through the telling of four stories of people whose lives have been adversely affected, the documentary shows us that tort reform isn’t necessarily any reform at all, and can cause long-term pain beyond the injury the plaintiff has suffered.  The most famous of the stories is the McDonald’s “hot coffee” lawsuit.  The McDonald’s case involved a woman-79 years old at the time-who suffered scalding, 3rd degree burns from a cup of McDonald’s coffee that spilled in her lap.

If you asked most people about the McDonald’s coffee case (and the movie did), they would tell you what they have heard in the media; what has become a national punch-line.  That an elderly woman put her coffee between her legs while she was driving; it spilled on her; it was hot; and she sued.  We’re meant to feel that she was a typical tort plaintiff who had a minor injury and wanted to reach into the big pockets of a corporation.  Her lucky day, right?  Wrong.  When you look into what really happened to Stella Liebeck after she ordered her coffee that day, you realize that this case is anything but a joke.

In fact, she was sitting in the passenger seat of the car, which was parked at the time.  She balanced the coffee between her knees to add cream and sugar.  When she attempted to pull back the lid, it spilled on her, scalding her severely.

So what you say?  That's not overly different than what you've already heard and she should know coffee is hot, right?  I agree with you, but coffee shouldn't be so hot that it causes humongous 3rd degree burns that require skin grafts and years of recovery.

In the movie, most people consider this woman a joke, but once they are shown the pictures of how horrific her injuries were, they quickly change their tune.  "Hot" coffee simply wouldn't cause the types of injuries she suffered.  This coffee was dangerous.  It'

It's compelling to watch the film and see the pictures.  People quickly change their belief that Stella Liebeck was interested in striking it rich at McDonald’s expense.   I wish I could show you the pictures here, but when I contacted the film makers they wouldn't allow it.  I imagine they are on the internet somewhere if you look hard enough.  They are certainly the worst I have ever seen.

The lawsuit against McDonald’s showed that not only are people quick to jump to the conclusion that lawsuits don’t have merit, but also corporations will weigh the cost of protecting the public, against the cost of leaving it alone.  It turns out that there were hundreds of other instances with McDonald’s coffee, such that they were on notice of the possible dangers of their product.  It was being held and served at a temperature that could cause severe burns in seconds.  But they claimed that the taste was better, and that people would drink it after arriving at their destination, and not right away in the car.

So they left the coffee temperature as it was, and did not warn customers that it needed to cool off or they could be severely burned.  If victims of dangerous products do not stand up to corporations in the courts, how else would others not suffer similar harm?

In many of these cases where large jury verdicts are awarded, the money serves two very important functions.  First, it tips the scale for the corporations on the side of spending the money to fix what is potentially harmful, rather than leaving the way it is.  If the cost of doing business becomes higher when business is done in a risky way, then the smaller expenditure will be to change for the better for the public.

Second, the jury awards help to compensate accident victims who may have extraordinary and sometimes life-long expenses as a result of the accident.  In the case of an obstetrician’s negligence, a child is born with a disability that could have been prevented, and which will cost enormous amounts of money in treatment and long-term care for the rest of his life.

For those that argue that damage awards should be capped, can you put a cap on the dignified, life-long care of an infant?  Hot Coffee shows the parents’ pain as they think to their son’s future after they were the victims of lawmakers “reforming” the system and taking the decisions away from juries to decide how much a child’s care is worth.

For those who put a blanket statement on “tort reform” and say that we’ve got to keep frivolous lawsuits out of our courts, the way to do it is not by keeping juries from doing their duty, and arbitrarily placing restrictions on damages.  In Illinois we are already protected from frivolous lawsuits by our existing rules.  The Illinois Supreme Court has a rule which requires all pleadings to be signed, certifying that the lawsuit is being brought in good faith and not for any bad or unnecessary purpose.   If a lawsuit is frivolous, it can be thrown out by the judge, and you could have to pay the other side’s costs and attorney’s fees.

The McDonald’s coffee case has been used as the shining example of all that is wrong with injury lawsuits and damage awards.  In fact with a closer look, the case is as jolting as a strong cup of coffee, that it can serve as an example of how we need to allow citizens their day in court, and juries their opportunity to award damages as they see justice requires.


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  • From what I know, the McDonald's coffee was served at 180 degrees. Most hot coffee is 140. In either event, the woman could have gotten a 3rd degree burn in less than 5 seconds of contact with the skin. The fact that it spilled on her sweatpants guaranteed she would be significantly burned. However, she would have been seriously burned whether the coffee was 140 or 180. I believe McDonald's is partially at fault for having dangerous temperatures, but emphasize that all coffee is served at potentially dangerous temperatures. The real problem was that she exposed herself by taking off the lid and doing so while in a moving vehicle. She would have been badly burnt either way. Her negligence was the main problem.

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    In reply to JackR:

    Jack: That is why apportionment of fault was allowed in this case. Basically what that boils down to is that the jury was able to decide what percentage the plaintiff was liable for her own injury and what percentage of fault the company was liable.

  • That's why you should see the movie. Many errors in your post, including saying that she was in a moving vehicle.

  • Liebeck was awarded $2.7M in punitive damages which can easily be construed as frivolous.

  • In reply to MikeB:

    Not based on how punitive damages are calculated they aren't, but even so, that is not what the result was as the Judge agreed with you and reduced what she got to the six figures.

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