Marsalisi Law
mcdonalds hot coffee case

Personal injury (trial) lawyers are often vilified by people who point to the “$3 million” award that a woman received when she spilled McDonald’s hot coffee on her. How outrageous! That’s the epitome of a frivolous law suit, isn’t it? Well, no, it really isn’t.

Here are 10 things that aren’t often told about the lawsuit that you should know:

  1. Stella Liebeck was a 79 year old grandmother in 1992 when she was a passenger in her grandson’s Ford Probe and they ordered coffee from the drive up window. Her grandson pulled over to stop while Ms. Liebeck held the Styrofoam cup between her legs to open the lid and add cream and sugar. (The Ford Probe did not have cup holders.)
  2. The 180 degree coffee spilled, causing 3rd degree burns on 6% of her body, including her inner thighs, groin and genital areas. She asked McDonalds to cover her hospital bills (between $11,000 and $20,000). McDonald’s instead offered $800.
  3. Before the case went to trial, Ms. Liebeck’s lawyer tried to settle for $300,000; McDonald’s refused. An arbitrator was called in and recommended a $225,000 settlement. Again, McDonald’s turned down the recommendation. For some reason, they had decided that they would draw a line in the sand with a case involving a frail grandmother.
  4. At trial, the jury found out that between 1982 and 1992, 700 other people had been badly burned by McDonald’s coffee. Ms. Liebeck’s lawyer questioned McDonald’s Quality Control Manager and had him admit that the temperature of McDonald’s coffee was hazardous. The lawyer also asked how many people being burned would it take for McDonald’s to change the high temperature of the coffee, to which the manager said he did not have a number in mind.
  5. The McDonald’s QC Manager also said the company had no intention of changing the temperature of the coffee in the future.
  6. According to one juror: Over the course of the trial, McDonald’s displayed a callous disregard for the safety of their patrons. That callousness led to the jury decision.
  7. The jury initially awarded Ms. Liebeck $200,000 for her injuries, but reduced it to $160,000 because they said she should shoulder 20% of the blame for the accident. In addition, they awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages. They estimated McDonald’s was selling $1.35 million in coffee per day, and as punishment, McDonald’s should pay the equivalent of two days of coffee sales.
  8. The final award wasn’t nearly that much. The judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, bringing the total of her award to $640,000. Both sides appealed, but their appeals were never heard since they settled out of court for what most observers believe was around $600,000.
  9. While losing the case, McDonald’s won the public relations battle as headlines stressed the $3 million punishment for spilled coffee, while failing to mention all the facts you are now learning.
  10. McDonald’s still serves extremely hot coffee, but they (and almost every other company that sells hot coffee) now serves “to go” coffee in improved containers with lids that make drinking hot coffee safer for everyone.

It was a case that did not cost McDonald’s nearly what people think and resulted in a safety change that is almost never mentioned. And that’s not frivolous at all.