McDonald's Coffee Case

By Jason M. Kroot, Winter 2007

The McDonald’s coffee case is arguably the most often cited example of a “frivolous lawsuit.” Most recall the lawsuit involved a women who spilled hot coffee on her lap and was awarded $2.9 million dollars, which made headlines around the world. This case is the poster child of the tort reform movement. Proponents argue this case demonstrates how a frivolous lawsuit resulted in an outrageously runaway jury verdict. However, what makes this case fascinating is what the media failed to report — information which may paint a very different picture.

On February 27, 1992, seventy-nine year old Stella Liebeck ordered a cup of coffee at a local McDonald’s drive thru. After placing the cup off coffee between her legs, she attempted to remove the lid to add some cream and sugar. While doing so, she spilled the entire cup of coffee on her lap, including the groin area between her legs. Because of her location in a car seat, she sat in a puddle of scalding hot liquid for over 90 seconds. Stella was taken to the hospital with third degree burns between her thighs, on her groin, and between her buttocks. She remained in the hospital for eight days which included painful skin grafts involving the most private parts of her body.

After suit was filed, Stella’s attorney learned McDonald’s heated its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees. The boiling part of water is 212 degrees. Evidence was presented that lowering coffee temperature just 20 degrees lower would have prevented Stella’s third degree burns. Evidence was also presented that McDonald’s was aware of over 700 prior reports of people being burnt with their coffee for which had resulted in prior settlements. Initially, Stella only sought $20,000 to cover her medical expenses which was promptly rejected by McDonalds.

After listening to all the evidence, the jury found McDonald’s was 80% responsible for the incident and that Stella was 20% at fault. The jury ultimately awarded Stella $160,000 in compensatory damages. The jury also awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages based on the McDonald’s prior knowledge of the dangers surrounding its 180 degree plus coffee and its failure to provide sufficient warning to consumers.

Perhaps most notably, the reduced the jury’s award to $480,000 in punitive damages. Accordingly, the ultimate award against McDonald’s was never $2.9 million. Instead, the ultimate award in the McDonald’s coffee case was $640,000. Nevertheless, most of us simply recall that some women was given $2.9 million dollars for spilling coffee on her lap. For those advocating tort reform, it is ironic this case is the most cite example of why “tort reform” is needed to “fix our civil justice system.”

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