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Hot Coffee – The Truth about the McDonald’s Coffee Case and the Myth of “Tort Reform”

by | Oct 28, 2011 | Uncategorized

Everyone knows about the case. Woman spills coffee on herself and sues the McDonald’s for millions. McDonald’s and other corporations cry for help that juries are out of control. Good money is going to bad frivolous lawsuits. This case becomes the poster child for tort reform. The true story of this case is different altogether.

Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, purchased McDonalds’ coffee at a drive-thru in February 1992. She was a passenger in her grandson’s car (which was stopped) when she took the lid off to add cream and sugar to the coffee. She spilled the coffee on her lap. Due to the high temperature of the coffee, Ms. Liebeck suffered third degree burns over 6% of her body including her inner thighs, groin, buttocks and genital area. She underwent painful skins grafts and spent 8 days in the hospital. She asked McDonald’s to help her pay for medical bills associated with the burns (approximately $20,000.00) McDonald’s offered $800.00. On to trial.

At trial the jury heard that McDonald’s maintained its coffee at 185 degrees and this temperature was enforced by McDonald’s quality assurance. However the same quality assurance admitted that burns will occur with temperatures over 140 degrees. McDonald’s also admitted that it had notice of over 700 claims for prior burns. Some of them third degree burns.. Unbelievably the quality assurance testified at trial that McDonald’s had no intention of lowering its temperatures. Evidence also showed that at this high temperature it would take only two to seven seconds of contact with the skin to produce third degree burns.

The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages but reduced it to $160,000 after the jury decided that Ms. Liebeck was 20 percent at fault in the spill. The jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages. This is the amount that McDonald’s grossed for just two days coffee receipts. The judge then reduced the punitive aspect of the award to $480,000.

The case was appealed and eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. Unfortunately a confidentiality clause in the settlement prevents Ms. Leibeck from speaking about the case. But not McDonald’s.

Susan Saladoff, a plaintiff attorney, just finished a documentary about the McDonald’s case and how it has affected the myth of “tort reform.” Tort reform is the slow erosion of the 7th Amendment to the Constitution. The right to a trial by jury. Corporations and other big interests keep eroding at this right and YOUR access to the court system and YOUR right to recover damages.

Check out her interview on the Colbert Report: