Justice Did Prevail in McDonald's Coffee Case

Possibly the most misrepresented case in the entire tort reform debate involves the compensatory and punitive damage award in 1994 to Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who spilled scalding McDonald's coffee on her lap in 1992.

The majority of Americans, when informed that $2.9 million was awarded to a woman for spilling coffee on her lap, immediately felt that this was just another example of runaway verdicts that must be controlled legislatively. Sadly, these popular opinions were based upon incomplete knowledge of the McDonald's coffee case. Did you know...

  • There had been over 700 prior incidents of injuries from McDonald's coffee that had been reported to the company and were present in company documents. They ranged in severity from minor burns to third degree burns, and resulted in numerous claims, some settling for over $500,000. Several cases involved children.
  • Prior to the lawsuit, McDonald's sold its coffee at 190 degrees Fahrenheit. Coffee you serve in your home is between 135 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Water that is found in your car radiator is 180 degrees Fahrenheit. At 190 degrees, it takes less than three seconds to produce a third degree burn, while at 160 degrees it takes about 20 seconds.
  • The coffee inflicted third degree burns on Stella Liebeck's groin, inner thighs and buttocks, necessitating seven days in the hospital for extensive skin grafts and debridement treatment. Photographs vividly demonstrated the severity of these burns, which covered six percent of her body.
  • A McDonald's executive testified that McDonald's knew its coffee caused serious burns. McDonald's also consciously decided not to warn people of the dangers concerning the temperature of its coffee and had no intention of changing that temperature.
  • One week after the lawsuit, McDonald's changed its coffee temperature reducing it by 20 degrees.
  • Despite Stella Liebeck's $20,000 in medical bills, McDonald's only offered her $800 to settle her case. Stella Liebeck stated she would have never brought the suit had McDonald's been willing to pay her medical bills.
  • The Plaintiff, Stella Liebeck, was found 20 percent at fault, which resulted in the compensatory damage award of $200,000 being reduced to $160,000.

When the jury heard and considered the above and additional evidence during the eight-day trial, they determined that McDonald's should face a punitive damage award for their callous disregard for the safety of their patrons. The jury awarded $2.9 million (the worth of two days of McDonald's coffee sales) to the permanently injured Stella Liebeck.

After the verdict, McDonald's (and many others) criticized the jury's decision categorizing the result as an example of how our civil justice system had perpetuated "frivolous" lawsuits with "unjust" results. The jury's decision, along with the facts behind this lawsuit, clearly showed McDonald's supporters the error of their thinking.