Stella Liebeck vs. McDonald’s
Many of you have heard the real story about the McDonald’s Hot Coffee case, but the Supreme Court is on vacation, and legal news is slow, so we have to reach back in the archives for legal content this week.
In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck bought a cup of coffee at a McDonald’s drive-tru. Her grandson was driving, she was riding passenger, the car was parked. While holding the cup in her lap (cars used to not have cup holders—it’s true) and trying to open the coffee to put in cream and sugar, the coffee spilled and caused third-degree burns to her legs and genitals. She spent a week in the hospital and then was discharged because she could not pay the hospital bills. She underwent skin grafts for months and walked with a limp the rest of her life.
Prior to Liebeck’s burns, McDonalds had received over 700 previous coffee-burn claims and paid settlements in some cases. McDonalds had a corporate policy to serve coffee at 180 to 190 degree Fahrenheit. McDonalds knew that coffee at that temperature causes third-degree burns in three to seven seconds. McDonald’s admitted that this temperature was too hot to drink, but claimed that people like to buy coffee, drive home or to work, and then drink the coffee—serving molten lava coffee gave it time to cool off to perfect temperature it claimed.
Also, McDonalds brewed coffee hotter than drinkable temperature so it holds longer in the store and they do not have to throw out lukewarm coffee as often. McDonalds admitted that it did not tell customers that the coffee was too hot to drink when served and that people should let it cool off before risking spills.
Before filing suit, Stella asked McDonalds to pay her medical bills ($20,000.00) and she would not ask for a nickel more. McDonalds did not even call Stella back nor send her a letter (this was before email). Once Stella did not hear back from McDonalds, she hired a lawyer. The lawyer told McDonalds that they could settle the case for $30,000.00. McDonalds did not respond. Before trial, A neutral mediator told McDonalds that it should pay $225,000 to settle the case. McDonalds never offered more than $800.
At trial, McDonald’s lawyers and corporate witnesses were disrespectful and rude to Stella and her lawyers. McDonalds acted like the whole thing was ridiculous as Stella and her lawyers proved that McDonalds served coffee that was too hot to drink, in uninsulated cups, to save money and that McDonalds had prior notice that the coffee caused third-degree burns but decided not to change the temperature. Stella admitted that she knew she would “get hurt” if she spilled coffee on herself but said she had no idea she would get third degree burns.
A professor from the University of Texas testified that 180-190 degree coffee is too hot to drink and that there was no reason why McDonalds needed to serve coffee that hot except to make more money.
The jury decided that McDonalds knew it had a dangerous policy that needed to be changed. The jury found that Stella was 20% at fault for spilling the coffee and that McDonalds was 80% at fault for the coffee being too damn hot for human consumption.
In a story about the case published shortly after the verdict, one of the jurors said McDonalds showed “callous disregard for the safety of customers.” Another juror said “the facts were so overwhelmingly against the company.” One juror said McDonalds acted like the previous 700 coffee injuries were no big deal, but she noted, “there was a person behind every number and I don’t think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that.”
The jury awarded Liebeck $128,000. The part of the verdict you usually hear about is the punitive (“punishment”) damages. The jury awarded Stella the amount of money McDonalds makes in two days off coffee sales—$2,700,000—to punish McDonalds and send a message. The Judge reduced that award to $640,000.00, but the media reported the larger amount. Stella’s final judgment was $768,000 Out of that amount she had to pay medical bills, her insurance company, her attorney and the cost of going to trial against one of the largest companies in the world. I estimate that she took home about $250,000—for third degree burns on and permanent injury to her legs and genitals.
Stella Liebeck lived to be 91, was in pain every day and used the settlement money solely for medical care. Nearly every media outlet who called the case frivolous has since issued retractions. The jury made an informed, reasonable decision against company that had a dangerous policy for no good reason.
The media never told the whole story, and the case would have never even seen a courtroom if McDonalds had been fair to Stella when she asked that McDonalds just pay her medical bills. Stella Leibeck was a good, reasonable person.
Mitchell Driskell practices law with the Tannehill & Carmean firm (voted Oxford’s Best Law Firm every year since 2010) and has been an Oxford lawyer for twenty two years. You can call him at 662.236.9996 and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He practices criminal law, civil law and family law