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Hot Coffee: The Famous “Frivolous” Lawsuit Against McDonald’s

 Posted on August 31, 2018 in Product Liability

Winnebago County personal injury attorneysIf you were to ask a random person on the street to think of a personal injury lawsuit that did not involve a member of their family, that person might name any number of cases. If you were to ask that same person to think of a frivolous lawsuit, he or she will almost certainly bring up the idea of suing over a cup of coffee and being awarded millions of dollars.

In 1994, an elderly New Mexico woman named Stella Liebeck did, in fact, sue McDonald’s over a cup of hot coffee. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury did decide that she should receive nearly $3 million in damages. A closer look, however, reveals that labeling the lawsuit as “frivolous” is, at best, unfair to the woman who suffered gruesome injuries from coffee that was far too hot.

The Facts

Ms. Liebeck was 79 years old when her grandson took her to McDonald’s in 1992. As she sat in the passenger seat of the car, she started to remove the lid of her coffee so that she could add cream and sugar. The cup tipped over and spilled the coffee onto her lap. The spilled coffee was so hot that Ms. Liebeck suffered third-degree burns on her legs and genitals in a matter of a few seconds. Her injuries were so severe that she required skin grafts and extensive surgeries.

In the decade or so leading up to Ms. Liebeck’s accident, McDonald’s had fielded more than 700 reports of customers who were burned by the fast-food giant’s coffee. The company routinely kept brewed coffee at temperatures around 190 degrees—hot enough to cause third-degree burns in just seven seconds.

The Lawsuit

Despite her injuries, Ms. Liebeck was not set on getting her day in court. She only wanted McDonald’s to pay her medical bills, which totaled about $20,000. McDonald’s counteroffered a settlement of $800. Thus, a lawsuit was filed in 1994.

During the trial, an expert for McDonald’s reportedly revealed that the company knew that its coffee was hot enough to be dangerous but that the number of cups sold made up for the occasional injury. The jury ultimately ruled in favor of Ms. Liebeck—while acknowledging that she was partially at fault for the spill. She was awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages, but the jury went a step further in an attempt to send a message to companies who put profit over safety. The jury ordered McDonald’s to pay Ms. Liebeck the equivalent of two days’ worth of coffee sales—nearly $2.7 million—in punitive damages.

The presiding judge actually reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, and the two sides eventually settled on an undisclosed amount. The verdict, however, took on a life of its own thanks to late-night talk shows and comedians who poked fun at the $3 million cup of coffee. It quickly became the prime example of our “litigious society” and how anyone can sue for anything to become an overnight millionaire. Of course, the only problem is that it did not happen this way. Ms. Liebeck sued because she was horribly injured and, despite the headline-grabbing verdict, probably received less than $600,000 in actual payments.

Call a Rockford Personal Injury Attorney for Help

If you or someone you love has been injured as the result of another party’s actions or negligence, an experienced Winnebago County personal injury lawyer can help protect your rights as you seek compensation. Call 815-215-7561 for a free, confidential consultation at Mannarino & Brasfield, A Division of Schwartz Injury Law, today.






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