The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case: Separating Fact from Fiction

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It seems most everyone has heard about the McDonald’s “Hot Coffee” verdict, however, it may well be one of those “facts” we remember without really knowing how we every learned them. Furthermore, most people repeat those “facts” without ever learning whether or not they were true.

Most people assume that the Plaintiff carelessly spilled hot coffee on her self and ended up with millions of dollars. Many people then argue that this exemplifies the “fact” that there are too many lawsuits and juries give out ridiculous verdicts to the undeserving.

However, the facts are decidedly to the contrary. The Plaintiff, Stella Liebeck, was 79 years old when she bought a cup of coffee at McDonalds and got into her son’s car. The car did not have a console area to set her cup while she was riding as a passenger. She placed the cup between her knees while she was pulling off the lid and the cup spilled.

Unlike most of the coffee that people make at home or buy from most any other restaurant, McDonald’s coffee was 180°. Most other coffee is heated to between 135-140°, a temperature that will not produce third-degree burns. However, McDonald’s, based on a consultant’s advice, brewed their coffee to 180-190°.

I’ve heard different versions as to why McDonald’s did so. Some say it was to discourage people from getting refills of coffee and others said that McDonald’s wanted the purchaser’s coffee to still be hot after they returned home or to their office. Regardless of what is true, the fact remains that McDonald’s made a conscious decision to brew its coffee to a temperature that would cause third-degree burns when few others, if anyone else, did.

McDonald’s knew that its coffee could cause third-degree burns and it received numerous complaints about such burns. McDonald’s employees admitted that brewing its coffee to 180° made it too hot to drink.

The Plaintiff, Mrs. Liebeck, sustained third-degree burns to her inner thighs, genitals, groin and buttocks. She was hospitalized for eight days and underwent skin grafting operations. Her weight dropped from 103 pounds to 83 pounds. McDonald’s refused an opportunity to settle her claim for $90,000 initially and rejected a mediator’s suggestion they pay $225,000.

The jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $200,000 for her own injuries and awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages. Ms. Liebeck’s $200,000 compensatory damages award was reduced by the 20% fault the jury placed on her. The trial court reduced the $2.7 million punitive damages to $480,000.

Thus, Ms. Liebeck’s final verdict was significantly less than $1 million.

Also, if you look at the facts here in Minnesota, there is no evidence of “sue happy” injured victims and “run-away” jury verdicts. From 2001 through 2010, data supplied by the Minnesota Supreme Court indicates that personal injury cases fell 24%. I also review verdict data published by the Twin Cities Jury Verdict Reporter, which analyzes every personal injury verdict in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties.

I am also frequently met with the argument from the insurance industry that the reason they offering less for neck and back injuries than they did 10 years ago is that juries are awarding less for such injuries. As a result, the insurance industry can not have it both ways and claim that the number of lawsuits is increasing and juries are giving away too much money for such injuries when the facts and their own arguments are the opposite. The State Supreme Court also indicates the only category of lawsuits that has increased is those involving contract disputes, which generally are business suing other business or individuals.

We should certainly openly discuss and debate the merits of our civil justice system; however, it should be based on facts and not a “boogeyman” created by special interest groups. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at 763-783-5121 or via e-mail at jbuchman@bgs.com.

~ John T. Buchman
Person Injury Attorney

About John T. Buchman

John Buchman is a Shareholder practicing in the area of Personal Injury and Products Liability. He has more than 30 years of experience handling complex cases including wrongful death and product liability claims. He has also tried several personal injury cases in his career, seeking compensation and justice for hundreds of clients in our community. The concentration and dedication he displays in the courtroom has also helped John achieve a third degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do!

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