Scalded Privates: The Short (But Real) Story Behind the Supposedly "Frivolous" McDonald’s Hot Coffee Lawsuit

“Can you believe it?  Some lady got millions for burning herself with her own hot coffee from McDonald’s!” 

You’ve no doubt heard all the talk before.  The case has become the poster child for so-called frivolous lawsuits and politicians screaming for silly tort reform.  The verdict supposedly represents everything that’s wrong with America and the legal system.

Of course, there’s only one problem: the legend has outgrown the truth.

As Paul Harvey used to say: “And now, here’s the rest of the story.”

  • The plaintiff was Ms. Stella Liebeck.  She was a grandmother who attempted multiple times to settle her case with McDonald’s.  They refused.
  • She wasn’t driving down the street when she got burned.  She was a passenger in a stopped vehicle.  They had ordered coffee at the drive-thru window.  After receiving the order, her grandson pulled his car forward and stopped momentarily so that she could add cream and sugar. The coffee spilled when she was attempting to remove that hard plastic lid from the little cheap styrofoam cup.
  • The coffee wasn’t just hot — it was scalding.  Indeed, it was discovered during the case that McDonald’s actively enforced a requirement that its restaurants keep coffee at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit — only a few degrees away from the boiling point! By comparison, home coffee makers generally maintain coffee at 135-140 degrees.
  • Notwithstanding, a McDonald’s’ quality assurance manager testified that the company enforced the 185 degree requirement even thought they knew a burn hazard existed with any food substance greater than 140 degrees, and that it was not fit for human consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat, and cause full thickness burn injuries to the skin in only 2-7 seconds.
  • In fact, McDonald’s produced documents showing that there were more than 700 other claims by other people similarly burned by its coffee over a 10- year-period. McDonald’s quite clearly knew the risk involved and simply chose to ignore it.
  • Ms. Liebeck’s injuries were legitimate.  In fact, they were horrendous.  Her vascular surgeon determined that she suffered full thickness burns (3rd degree burns) over 6 percent of her body — including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. (See the photo below if you have a strong enough stomach.)
  • She was hospitalized for 8 days, during which time she underwent skin grafts in her genital area.
  • Despite these grotesque injuries, Ms. Liebeck merely asked McDonald’s to pay for the cost of her medical treatment, and offered to settle the case for only $20,000. They refused.
  • At the end of the day, this wasn’t a runaway jury.  Indeed, Ms. Liebeck was only awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages. And even this amount was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Ms. Liebeck 20 percent at fault for the spill, and thus they made a corresponding 20% reduction to the damages.
  • Based on the evidence of past claims and McDonald’s conscious decision to ignore a substantial risk, the jury also awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages.  The idea behind punitive damages is to make sure the defendant is properly motivated to change its conduct by taking into account the fact that there were other instances of egregious damages for which they might have escaped appropriate responsibility. And even then, the $2.7 million punitive verdict only equaled about 2 days of coffee sales at McDonald’s.  2 whole days.
  • And the court reduced even that amount to only $480,000.

So take a look at the photo and ask yourself whether you’d willingly trade those injuries and skin grafts to genitalia for a mere $600,000.

No way.  Not me.  No thanks.

Doesn’t sound so “frivolous” anymore, does it?

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