The Case that Steamed Up America

You might have heard about the woman who sued McDonalds because the coffee she purchased was too hot.  You probably heard it in the context of a joke about the state of American litigation, or as a complaint about our society’s rush to use the courts to make money.  What you may not know are the details that turn this case from a sad example of a litigious society gone mad, to a sad story about how an international corporation failed to protect its customers and how one elderly lady suffered the consequences.

As the saying goes, the devil is in the details.  In the McDonalds hot coffee case this is particularly true.  Most people know that in this case, hot coffee was spilled while in a car, causing the victim to be burned.  This seems like a lack of common sense, but in fact, McDonalds’ negligence caused more pain and suffering for this woman than a cup of spilled coffee should.  The reason that McDonalds was held responsible for this spilled coffee is that they knowingly hold their coffee at a dangerous temperature, 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit, rather than at the more common but  still hot temperature of 140-150 degrees.  In the years before this case, they received hundreds of complaints of similarly severe burns, and yet did nothing to prevent future suffering.  McDonalds says that customers want their coffee to be hot.  However, there is a stark difference between hot and scalding.

McDonalds’ Quality Assurance Manager testified that the temperature at which McDonalds’ pours its coffee into the cups, was not fit for human consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat.

The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000.00 in compensatory damages, and that was reduced to 160,000.00 asthe jury found her to be 20% at fault. The jury awarded 2.7 million in punitive damages, as the judge and jury found McDonalds was more than just negligent, but in fact that it was reckless, callous and willful. The jury awarded 2.7 million as that is what McDonalds made in 2 days of coffee sales! Then the judge reduced that award to $480,000.00. The case went up on appeal, and the parties entered into a confidential settlement, whereby Liebeck received less than 7 figures.

Ultimately it appears that this victim received some measure of justice, but went through a lot to get it. The facts of this case were spun in the media to try to make it look like Liebeck brought a frivolous claim and received millions of dollars. There are countless incidents of innocent people being hurt but not wanting to stir up trouble or bring an “excessive” lawsuit. These kinds of lawsuits are not frivolous though — they bring compensation to those who have been wronged and they teach the perpetrator that such negligence is unacceptable. Dont ever assume that the other insurance company or defendant company is going to treat you fairly, just because you know you are an honest person, making a legitimate claim. Insurance companies and big businesses have the money and resources to jerk you around, and they will.  Talk to an experienced injury lawyer who fights for people like you about your options.

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