The infamous ‘McDonald’s hot coffee’ lawsuit has become a punchline and poster child for criticizing frivolous lawsuits, but the truth is as sad as it is frightening.
Most people remember the story of an elderly woman who spilled coffee in her lap and then sued McDonald’s for millions of dollars. Many see the plaintiff as a greedy fool looking to make a quick buck off of her own mistake. In reality, then 79-year-old Stella Liebeck was permanently disfigured by a cup of coffee that was just a few degrees below boiling. She never wanted to go to court, but asked McDonald’s to help pay for the skin grafts required to repair her legs and genitals damaged by their product, which was later proven in court to be a public health hazard.
After McDonald’s offered a mere $800 to help pay for her $10,500 medical bill, Liebeck filed a lawsuit.
Consumer Attorneys of California wrote a report about her case citing the facts that were twisted or omitted by the media in 1992. Here’s what actually happened.
Mrs. Liebeck was not driving when her coffee spilled, nor was the car she was in moving. She was the passenger in a car that was stopped in the parking lot of the McDonald’s where she bought the coffee. She had the cup between her knees while removing the lid to add cream and sugar when the cup tipped over and spilled the entire contents on her lap.
The coffee was not just “hot,” but dangerously hot. McDonald’s corporate policy was to serve it at a temperature that could cause serious burns in seconds. Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries were far from frivolous.
McDonald’s operations manual required the franchisee to hold its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit.
McDonald’s admitted it had known about the risk of serious burns from its scalding hot coffee for more than 10 years. The risk had repeatedly been brought to its attention through numerous other claims and suits.
McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that McDonald’s coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into Styrofoam cups, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat.
McDonald’s admitted at trial that consumers were unaware of the extent of the risk of serious burns from spilled coffee served at McDonald’s then-required temperature.
McDonald’s admitted it did not warn customers of the nature and extent of this risk and could offer no explanation as to why it did not.
Liebeck was awarded $2.7 million dollars, but she only saw $600,000 after McDonald’s made an appeal in 1994. She hardly lived as a millionaire, and never fully recovered from her injuries. After she died in 2004 her daughter revealed that the combination of her injuries and court proceedings ruined her quality of life and the settlement was enough to help pay for a live-in nurse.
McDonald’s admitted to wrong doing, and finally made changes to their policy which had caused more than 700 similar injuries. Liebeck’s made a significant victory for working-class citizens injured by massive corporations at the cost of her well being. For her suffering, she will forever be remembered as a joke to describe frivolous lawsuits.