In the early 90’s a woman named Stella Liebeck purchased a cup of coffee at a McDonald’s drive thru. This seemingly normal and quick purchase at the drive thru turned into a whirlwind lawsuit that caught the attention of national news outlets across the country and is still talked about 30 years later.
The main narrative everyone believed was that a woman sued McDonald’s and received $2.9 million for spilling coffee on herself, and this painted a very negative public view of personal injury lawyers. Instead of just listening to headlines, let’s dive deeper into the facts of the case and you may be surprised by what you learn.
What happened with the spill
Reader’s Digest’s summary states that on February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old widow was in the passenger seat of her grandson’s Ford Probe ordering a Value Meal at the drive-through window of an Albuquerque, New Mexico, McDonald’s. Since there were no cup holders in the Probe and the interior surfaces were sloped, her grandson pulled into a parking spot after they got their order.
She wanted to put cream and sugar in her coffee so she put the cup between her legs to steady it to remove the lid and it was then that the coffee spilled into her lap. She suffered third degree burns to her inner thighs, buttocks, perineum, genital and groin area and was admitted to the hospital for eight days. While at the hospital, Stella underwent skin grafts, debridements, and was disabled for two years following the accident. Her treating physician testified at trial that it was one of the worst scald burns he had ever seen.
How the trial went down
At trial, the jury learned about the directive from McDonald’s Corporate office regarding the temperature to brew and serve coffee. Allegedly, coffee was to be brewed to 195-205 degrees Fahrenheit and sold between 180 and 190 degrees. This temperature is significantly higher than home brewing systems and other fast-food chains and due to the heat, third degree burns can occur within two to three seconds.
Additionally, it was alleged that from 1982 to 1992, McDonald’s coffee had burned more than 700 people. During trial, it came out that McDonald’s was allegedly aware of the risk of serious burns and had no plans to reduce the temperature of its coffee or adjust their corporate directives. They admitted that because of the temperature of the coffee being so high, it was not fit for consumption within the first ten minutes, as it was likely to cause scald injuries to the mouth and throat.
Because this case gained national attention and was watched closely by the media, many of the specific facts were tightly sealed behind a confidentiality agreement that went with the final settlement. However, it was alleged that McDonald’s, aware that its market share was down substantially, hired marketing experts to determine the reason. They determined that the lost market share was due to an average 22-minute gap from point of purchase of breakfast/coffee to the time it was consumed (meaning the coffee was cold at that point). As a result, McDonald’s retrofitted the coffee urns to raise the temperature high enough to remain hot for 22 minutes after being poured.
The results of trial
Even though the representatives for McDonald’s likely painted a picture that this was the fault of Stella, the jury heard all the facts of the case and awarded Stella with a whopping $2.9 million. They came to the conclusion that she was owed $200,000 for her severe injuries which was reduced to $160,000 as they found her to be 20% at fault. Additionally, they awarded her $2.7 million in punitive charges (which was reduced to $480,000 by the trial court) to deter similar conduct in the future because they found McDonald’s actions to be willful.
Since McDonald’s sold one billion cups of coffee a year at the time (generating $1.3 million per day in revenues), the jury’s punitive damages award equated to a mere two days’ worth of McDonald’s coffee sales. While the day ended in court on a high note for Stella, the media was nowhere near done talking about this case, and many of the stories were distorted and misinformed.