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Most people, whether associated with the legal system or not, know about the “McDonald’s Coffee Case”; or, at least they think they do. A wonderful 2011documentary, entitled Hot Coffee, sets forth the facts of the case in great detail. If you haven’t seen it, you should. Not only is the McDonald’s case shown, but the entire pattern and practice of insurance company propaganda is detailed. Before reading further, ask yourself what you really know about the case. Likely, the entirety of what you know about this now world-famous case can be summarized as follows: an old lady spilled McDonald’s coffee in her lap in a car, sued, and recovered millions of dollars. Was I right? Do you want to hear the rest of the story?

The actual case is captioned: Stella Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, P.T.S., Inc. and McDonald’s International, Inc. It was a New Mexico case that was decided in 1994, of which the facts are quite public and can be found in literally hundreds of places on the internet. In summary, the facts are as follows:
Stella Liebeck, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was a 79 year-old grandmother who, in 1992, was the passenger in her grandson’s car when he pulled through the McDonald’s drive-thru to get her a small coffee (most of the insurance company’s initial reporting had her as the driver – FALSE). He pulled over and stopped the vehicle to allow her to put cream and sugar in the coffee (most of the insurance company’s initial reporting had the car moving when this happened – FALSE). As Stella tried to remove the lid from the cup, the entire contents of the cup spilled into her lap.
Stella’s vascular surgeon determined she suffered full-thickness burns (third-degree burns) over 6% of her
body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. She had received lesser
burns over 16% of the rest of her body. She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting and debridement treatments. While in the hospital, Stella lost almost 20% of her body weight and left at about 83 pounds. She subsequently treated for the next two years for her burns.
Stella attempted to negotiate directly with McDonald’s and asked for $20,000.00 (roughly her “out-of-pocket”
expenses); McDonald’s offered $800.00. Stella hired an attorney who then filed suit. During the “discovery”
portion of the lawsuit, the following was found:
  • Between 1982 and 1992, McDonald’s had more than 700 claims as a result of people burning themselves on their coffee;
  • Some of the 700 claims also involved third-degree burns similar to Stella’s;
  • At the time, McDonald’s actively enforced a requirement that all franchisees hold the coffee in the pot at between 185 and 190 degrees;
  • Almost all other fast-food franchises hold their coffee at 135 to 140 degrees;
  • McDonald’s agreed that 180 degree coffee is not “fit for human consumption” because it would immediately scald. They assumed people would wait before attempting to drink;
  • Thermodynamics experts testified that coffee at 180 degrees will cause third-degree burns in two to seven seconds. However, at 150 degrees, Stella would likely have received no burns at all, except maybe some slight reddening of the skin; and
  • McDonald’s argued that most customers preferred their coffee hot, but admitted on cross-examination most customers probably didn’t know their coffee was hot enough to cause full-thickness, third-degree burns, which literally destroy human skin, flesh, and muscle.
At the end of the trial, the jury awarded Stella $200,000.00 in compensatory damages for her past and future
medical bills, lost wages, disfigurement, and pain and suffering. That amount was reduced by 20% for her own comparative negligence for opening the lid while it was in her lap. Therefore, her compensatory damage award was $160,000.00.
The jury also awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages after hearing the testimony about the temperature of the coffee being 40 to 50 degrees hotter than industry standard, the large amount of people who were severely injured by the scalding coffee prior to Stella, and the fact that McDonald’s had ignored prior attempts from claimants to get them to turn the temperature down on the coffee. The jury arrived at the $2.7 million amount, as it represents about two days of McDonald’s coffee sales. The judge called McDonald’s conduct reckless, callous, and willful; however, he reduced the punitive damage award to $480,000.00.
McDonald’s appealed the verdict, and the parties agreed to settle the case for a confidential sum before the Appellate Court ruled on the case. Subsequent to the case, an investigation found that the temperature of coffee at the local Albuquerque McDonald’s was between 155 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
You may still disagree with the verdict in Stella’s case, or, you may think she should have, in fact, received millions for her injuries. The point of this article was not to try and change your opinion either way, it was simply to give you the rest of the story you won’t get, and have never gotten, from the insurance company’s press releases on this case.
© Joseph W. Dunn 2015