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Hot Coffee

All too often I end up having a conversation with someone that claims personal injury claimants and their attorneys are what’s wrong with our country.  I typically listen while they vent, and without fail we end up talking about the infamous “McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case.”

Most everyone has heard about that case, but not many people know what actually happened.

Here’s what most people DO know: in 1992, a lady bought a cup of coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque, New Mexico and spilled it on her lap.  She sued McDonald’s and a jury awarded her nearly $3 million in punitive damages for her injuries.  Here’s how most people react: Coffee is supposed to be hot!  She spilled it on herself!  She was probably being careless and not paying attention!

Now, here’s what most people DO NOT know about the facts of that case: the lady (Stella Liebeck) was not driving when her coffee spilled.  She was a passenger in a car that was parked in the McDonald’s parking lot.  She had the cup between her knees, and while removing the lid to add cream and sugar, the cup tipped over and spilled on her lap.  The coffee was not just “hot,” but scalding.  Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries were far from frivolous or exaggerated.  She suffered third-degree burns (the most serious type of burn), was hospitalized for eight days and had to undergo multiple surgeries and skin grafts.

Why was the coffee so hot?  Well, McDonald’s corporate policy was to serve it at a temperature that could cause serious burns in seconds.  This policy was in place despite the fact that McDonald’s knew its coffee was so hot that it caused third-degree burns within 3 to 7 seconds of contact with skin.  In the ten years prior to Mrs. Liebeck’s accident, McDonald’s had received more than 700 reports of injuries from its coffee, including reports of burns to children and infants from accidental spills.  The Shriner’s Burn Institute in Cincinnati had even published warnings to the franchise food industry that serving coffee above 130 degrees was unnecessarily causing serious burns.

The jury awarded Mrs. Liebeck $200,000 in compensation for her pain and medical costs, but that figure was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found her 20 percent responsible for the accident.  The jury also awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages, which the trial judge reduced to $480,000 even though McDonald’s behavior was found to have been “willful, wanton and reckless.”

So there you have it… the untold facts of the McDonald’s hot coffee case.  Do you think the jury got it right?

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