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Published: 2008-03-26

The McDONALDS Coffee Cup Case: Separating McFACTS From McFICTION

Ask anyone about the McDonald's Coffee Cup Lawsuit and chances are they'll tell you they have heard of it - a woman spills a cup of coffee on her lap and gets big bucks in court. This is the part of the story that insurance companies and certain members of the business community want us to remember. It helps them argue that you can't trust the court system and it continues to poison the opinions of people who are called to serve on juries.

But what really happened in the McDonald's case? Why did members of the jury who were first extremely angry about having to sit and listen to this case later turn their anger on McDonald's and award money to the Plaintiff? Why did the Wall Street Journal say McDonald's was callous about the matter? Why did the New York Times recently expose this case as a misrepresentation of what really happened. New York Times, 6/4/94. Here are the McFACTS:

McFact #1: For years McDonald's knew that their 1850 coffee was served at least 200 hotter than at other restaurants. They insisted on it, and even though more than 700 other people had made claims for scalding coffee burns in the previous ten years, McDonald's never consulted a burn expert and didn't lower the temperature.

McFact #2: 79-year old Stella Liebeck was not driving in a car when she was injured. In fact, she was not driving at all. She had gone with her grandson, Chris, to take her son, Jim, to the airport. On the way home, Chris pulled into a McDonald's drive-thru for breakfast. He parked the car so she could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Here's what happened next: Because the car had no cup holders and a slanted dash, Stella testified that she put the cup between her knees and removed the lid. As she did so, the slick styrofoam cup flipped backwards, dumping the scalding liquid into her lap and saturated the cotton sweatsuit which she was wearing. Her grandson, Chris, jumped out to help but the near boiling coffee was already searing her skin. By the time Chris was able to bring his grandmother to the emergency room, she had third degree burns across her groin, thighs, genitalia and buttocks. Stella Liebeck was badly wounded. She says all she remembers is the pain.

McFact #3: Stella spent 7 days in the hospital. She then spent another 3 weeks confined to her home where her daughter travelled to take care of her. After that, she required another hospital stay for skin grafts. She went from 113 to 83 pounds and for a time her family doubted if she would survive.

McFact #4: Initially, Stella's family only asked McDonald's for her out-of-pocket expenses, about $2,000 plus her daughter's lost wages. McDonald's offered only $800.

McFact #5: A McDonald's Quality Control manager testified that McDonald's knew of the risk of dangerously hot coffee and had no plans to either turn down the heat or warn their customers, even though most customers wouldn't be aware of the scalding danger.

McFact #6: Another McDonald's corporate witness testified that they had received 700 complaints prior to this accident.

McFact #7: Only after McDonald's refused to raise its offer above $800, Stella's lawyer filed suit. He asked for $100,000 in compensatory damages including her pain and suffering and triple punitive damages to send a message to McDonald's that their coffee was dangerously hot.

McFact #8: A month later, the judge reduced the jury's punitive award of $2.7 million to only $640,000 reasoning that this amount was approximately 3 times the compensatory damages. He said the case "was not a runaway, I was there," and that it was "appropriate to punish and deter" McDonald's corporate coffee policy.

McFact #9: McDonald's still has not gotten the lesson and lowered the temperature of its coffee. A report in Liability Week, September 29, 1997, states that after Stella Liebeck burned herself in this case a 73-year old woman suffered first and second degree burns when a cup of McDonald's coffee spilled on her lap. This report indicated that McDonald's still keeps its coffee at 1800, still 200 hotter than other restaurants.

What does this mean for you the consumer? Third degree burns occur at 1850 in just 2 - 5 seconds. They can require skin grafting and other expensive medical treatments that can exceed tens of thousands of dollars and inflict severe prolonged pain and permanent disability.

Be aware of the potential danger when at home or elsewhere. Make sure that children don't have access to scalding liquids. Make sure that you know all the facts before buying into the sensational stories permeating our culture. Don't let fantasy based t.v. shows and insurance company propaganda rob you of your rights to use our civil justice system to ensure your family's safety.Parts reprinted with permission from CTLA Voice Newsletter, Winter 1999.