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Not So Frivolous After All: What Really Happened in the McDonald’s Coffee Case

You may remember Stella Liebeck, who several years ago sued McDonald’s after spilling hot coffee on herself. Mrs. Liebeck became the butt of many late-night jokes, and was even mocked in episodes of “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons.” She was the poster child for frivolous lawsuits and a litigation system run amok.

But the real facts of the story, as described in the documentary “Hot Coffee,” may surprise you.

Ms. Liebeck was sitting in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car after purchasing a cup of McDonald’s coffee. When the car stopped, the 79-year-old tried to hold the cup securely between her knees while removing the lid. The cup tipped over, drenching her pelvic region with scalding hot coffee.

Mrs. Liebeck received third-degree burns over 16 percent of her body. She was hospitalized for eight days. She endured skin grafts and sizeable scars. She was disabled for more than two years.

Despite the severity of her injuries, she offered to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000. McDonald’s refused and, in fact, never offered more than $800. A jury awarded Mrs. Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages (reduced to $160,000 because she was found to be 20 percent at fault), and $2.7 million in punitive damages for McDonald’s conduct.

The trial judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, but said McDonald’s had engaged in “willful, wanton, and reckless” behavior. Mrs. Liebeck and McDonald’s eventually settled for a confidential amount.

To put this in perspective, McDonald’s revenue from coffee sales alone was in excess of $1.3 million on day of her accident.

The jury heard the following evidence:

• McDonald’s Operations Manual required the franchisee to hold its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit. Coffee at that temperature, if spilled, causes third-degree burns in three to seven seconds.

• Third-degree burns do not heal without skin grafting, debridement and whirlpool treatments that cost tens of thousands of dollars and result in permanent disfigurement, extreme pain and disability of the victim for many months, and in some cases, years.

• McDonald’s admitted that it has known about the risk of serious burns from its coffee for more than 10 years. The risk was brought to its attention through numerous other claims and suits.

• From 1982 to 1992, McDonald’s coffee burned more than 700 people. Many received severe burns to the genital area, inner thighs and buttocks.

• McDonald’s admitted at trial that its coffee is “not fit for consumption” when sold because it causes severe scalds if spilled or drunk.

• McDonald’s admitted at trial that consumers are unaware of the extent of the risk of serious burns from spilled coffee served at McDonald’s then-required temperature.

• McDonald’s admitted that it did not warn customers of the nature and extent of this risk and could offer no explanation as to why it did not.