McDonald's coffee lawsuit

The Wall Street Journal article “McDonald’s Callousness Was Real Issue, Jurors Say, In Case of Burned Woman” sheds some much-needed light on the McDonald’s coffee case.

When a law firm here found itself defending McDonald’s Corp. in a suit last year that claimed the company served dangerously hot coffee, it hired a law student to take temperatures at other local restaurants for comparison.

After dutifully slipping a thermometer into steaming cups and mugs all over the city, Danny Jarrett found that none came closer than about 20 degrees to the temperature at which McDonald’s coffee is poured, about 180 degrees.

Despite these findings, McDonald’s refused to settle out of court. Apparently, they didn’t think a jury would “punish a company for serving coffee the way customers like it.” And at first, that’s how jurists felt. Then they learned the facts.

What the jury didn’t realize initially was the severity of her burns. Told during the trial of Mrs. Liebeck’s seven days in the hospital and her skin grafts, and shown gruesome photographs, jurors began taking the matter more seriously. “It made me come home and tell my wife and daughters don’t drink coffee in the car, at least not hot,” says juror Jack Elliott.

Even more eye-opening was the revelation that McDonald’s had seen such injuries many times before. Company documents showed that in the past decade McDonald’s had received at least 700 reports of coffee burns ranging from mild to third degree, and had settled claims arising from scalding injuries for more than $500,000.


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The Center for Justice & Democracy has published a story called MYTHBUSTER! THE MCDONALD’S COFFEE CASE” AND OTHER FICTIONS to tell the true story of the often misunderstood and misrepresented case of the 79-year-old woman who sued McDonalds after she received third-degree burns over 16 percent of her body from spilled coffee.

The “McDonald’s coffee” case. We have all heard it: a woman spills McDonald’s coffee, sues and gets $3 million. Here are the facts of this widely misreported and misunderstood case:

Stella Liebeck, 79 years old, was sitting in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car having purchased a cup of McDonald’s coffee. After the car stopped, she tried to hold the cup securely between her knees while removing the lid. However, the cup tipped over, pouring scalding hot coffee onto her. She received third-degree burns over 16 percent of her body, necessitating hospitalization for eight days, whirlpool treatment for debridement of her wounds, skin grafting, scarring, and disability for more than two years. Morgan, The Recorder, September 30, 1994. Despite these extensive injuries, she offered to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000. However, McDonald’s refused to settle. The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages — reduced to $160,000 because the jury found her 20 percent at fault — and $2.7 million in punitive damages for McDonald’s callous conduct. (To put this in perspective, McDonald’s revenue from coffee sales alone is in excess of $1.3 million a day.) The trial judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000. Subsequently, the parties entered a post-verdict settlement. According to Stella Liebeck’s attorney, S. Reed Morgan, the jury heard the following evidence in the case:
Continue Reading THE “MCDONALD’S COFFEE CASE”