hot coffeeWe’ve all heard about it. More than 22 years ago, Stella Liebeck spilled scorching hot coffee on her lap and sued McDonald’s. The aftermath was a swarm of mostly negative media attention and a public that was quick to judge, crying out against this seemingly frivolous personal injury lawsuit. Unfortunately, most of the true details surrounding the incident went unreported and to this day, many people still do not fully appreciate the injury Ms. Liebeck suffered. This has prompted Wake Forest University Professor John Llewellyn, among others, to call Liebeck’s lawsuit “the most misunderstood story in America.”

Fortunately, however, through the course of the lawsuit, a multitude of facts surfaced that showed that McDonald’s should have been (and was ultimately) held accountable for its actions. These established facts are as follows:

• In 1992, Stella Liebeck ordered coffee at a McDonald’s drive-through in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She was sitting the passenger’s seat and while the car was stopped, she removed the lid and the cup tipped over pouring scalding hot coffee into her lap.
• Ms. Liebeck received third-degree burns to over 16 percent of her body. She was hospitalized for 8 days and had to endure multiple skin grafts and scarring for over two years thereafter.
• Ms. Liebeck attempted to settle the matter for $20,000, but McDonald’s refused.
• During the trial, it was established that McDonald’s sold its coffee at 180 – 190 degrees Fahrenheit, that liquids at this temperature could cause third degree burns within seconds, that it had been warned about these dangerous temperatures on numerous occasions through other burn victims and lawsuits, that the coffee was not fit for consumption and that McDonald’s did not warn its customers and had no plans to change its procedures.
• In commenting, the presiding Judge Robert Scott called McDonald’s actions “callous”.
• Thereafter, a jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages, which was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found her 20% at fault, and $2.7 million in punitive damages for McDonald’s continuous and egregious conduct. The punitive damages award was reduced and the parties would later enter into a post-verdict settlement.

For more information, review the case: Stella Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, P.T.S., Inc. and McDonald’s International, Inc.

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