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Who sues because the coffee is hot?? The real story…

by onNovember 12, 2014

A lot has been said in the media in recent years about frivolous lawsuits and runaway juries. Injured people are often accused of being litigious or running to the courthouse if they have to file a lawsuit to get the compensation they deserve when hurt by someone else. More often than not, the average person compares a plaintiff to the plaintiff in the now infamous McDonald’s hot coffee case, making wisecracks about suing McDonald’s for millions of dollars because their coffee was hot.

The unfortunate part about the McDonald’s case is that the public was never given the whole truthful story by the media. They simply reported the verdict in that case, without ever telling the public the facts behind the jury awarding as much as they did. And, of course, they never reported that the verdict was later significantly reduced by the court. Here’s the rest of the story:

The plaintiff in the case, Stella Liebeck, was a 79 year old passenger in her grandson’s car in 1992. They went through the McDonald’s drive-thru and Stella ordered a cup of coffee, which was served to her in a styrofoam cup. After getting their order, Stella’s grandson moved the car forward to allow other customers to access the window, and then brought the vehicle to a stop so that his grandmother could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Numerous stories have reported that Stella was driving the car while trying to do this or that the car was moving. This simply is incorrect and untrue.

Stella held the cup between her knees (like most of us would do) and removed the lid. Immediately upon removing the lid, the entire cup spilled into her lap. The coffee soaked into her pants, keeping the hot coffee next to her skin. The end result was Stella suffering severe third degree burns to more than 6 percent of her body, including her thighs, buttocks, genitals and groin. She was hospitalized for eight days and underwent debridement and skin grafting treatments to repair the damage caused by the coffee.

At one point, Stella sought to settle her claim with McDonald’s for $20,000 to cover her medical bills, but McDonald’s refused. As a result, a lawsuit was initiated. During discovery in the lawsuit, it was learned that McDonald’s had over 700 claims made against it by people burned by hot coffee in the ten year period before Stella’s incident, some with serious third degree burns similar to Stella. McDonald’s was well aware of the dangers of its coffee, and did nothing to prevent burns or protect its customers.

During the lawsuit, McDonald’s admitted that it kept its coffee at 180-190 degrees because they felt that temperature provided the best flavor for its coffee. In fact, it was McDonald’s policy that all coffee be kept at 185 degrees in the pot, plus or minus 5 degrees. They never investigated the safety ramifications of keeping their coffee that hot, despite the fact that coffee brewed at home and at other establishments is usually served at 135-140 degrees, and despite the fact that McDonald’s quality assurance executives knew that substantial burns to the skin could occur at the temperature they kept their coffee.

Expert testimony in the case established that 180 degree liquid would cause third degree burns to the skin in two to seven seconds. The experts also revealed that at 155 degrees, the risk of serious injury is exponentially reduced, meaning that Stella would have probably avoided serious injury even if McDonald’s coffee was only 15 degrees hotter than its competitors instead of the 40-50 degrees it mandated.

After hearing all of the testimony, the jury awarded Stella $200,000 for her medical bills and pain and suffering, but reduced it by 20% to $160,000, finding that Stella was partially at fault in causing the spill. The jury also awarded Stella $2.7 Million in punitive damages against McDonald’s, to punish McDonald’s for keeping their coffee dangerously hot and not warning or protecting their customers. The $2.7 Million punitive damages award equaled about two days worth of coffee sales for McDonald’s. Following the verdict, the store that served the coffee to Stella was found to be serving coffee to its customers at 158 degrees, 20-30 degrees lower than before.

Post-trial, the trial judge reduced the punitive damages award from $2.7 Million to $480,000 despite the fact that the judge expressly found that McDonald’s conduct towards it customers was reckless, callous, and intentional. Stella and McDonald’s later entered into a confidential settlement which was never made available to the public.

Now you know the whole story. Now you know that Stella wasn’t some litigious person looking to get rich quick off of a successful business. Now you know that McDonald’s was to blame for the severe injuries that this 79 year old grandmother suffered all because they wanted to have hotter coffee than their competitors. Now you know that Stella never received millions of dollars. And now you know that McDonald’s changed its practices and policies, because Stella was brave enough to fight a corporate giant to protect future consumers.

If you would like a more in-depth look at this story, we encourage you to watch the multiple award winning HBO documentary Hot Coffee. A free trailer is available here.

If you or a loved one has been injured or died due to the negligence of another, including in a motor vehicle accident, trucking accident, motorcycle accident, slip and fall, or due to medical error or nursing home negligence, contact us at 419-241-5500 or email us. We are happy to speak with you and discuss your case with you. We have helped thousands of Ohioans get the restitution they deserve with our 40+ years of experience helping injured victims in Ohio achieve great results.

The information contained in this blog post is general information, and should not be treated as legal advice. No attorney/client relationship exists between the reader and Lafferty, Gallagher & Scott, LLC without a signed Attorney Contract Agreement of Representation. Each case is unique and past results should not be treated as a guarantee of the results in your case.

Information for this blog post was partially obtained from ATLA fact sheet. © 1995, 1996 by Consumer Attorneys of California

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