The Liebeck vs. McDonald’s coffee burn case stands out as a personal injury case because it was the old frail lady going against a giant corporation. And as could be expected, Corporate America behaved as Corporate America behaves: haughtily. A trial jury “beheaded” them for that and awarded the plaintiff almost $3 million in punitive damages.
In 1992, 79-year old Albuquerque resident Stella Liebeck rode in the passenger seat of her son’s truck, as the pair visited a McDonald’s drive through. When Ms. Liebeck accidentally spilled her coffee on her lap, she suffered third-degree burns that required skin grafts. After a jury awarded her $2.9 million in damages, it incited a media frenzia with confusion and controversy surrounding the personal injury case.
Misunderstanding the case
It didn’t take long for news of the McDonald’s coffee burn case to spread throughout the world. Ms. Liebeck’s case soon became a platform for politicians advocating tort reform. Commenters on the case portrayed Ms. Liebeck as a foolish driver who should have known her coffee would be hot. In reality, she was a passenger in a parked car when the coffee scalded her. Her case wasn’t an isolated incident, as some 700 customers had previously complained of the scalding temperatures to McDonald’s. Despite being aware of the issue, McDonald’s failed to adjust its procedure manuals, and continued to instruct its franchisees to keep their coffee hot at around 180-190° Fahrenheit.
Garnering media attention
Many who heard of the case believed Liebeck acted negligently in not going inside to eat in the restaurant or not knowing the coffee would be so hot. Liebeck’s lawyer criticized the media’s failure to portray the story in a complete, balanced light. Ms. Liebeck’s family saw her belittled in news reports, comedy routines and even the Toby Keith song “American Ride.” There may be grounds to suspect the media kept McDonald’s under a favorable light, on the ground of their advertising dollars.
Following corporate policy
When Ms. Liebeck spilled her coffee, she was removing the lid to add cream and sugar. At this point, the cup tipped over and spilled eight ounces on her lap. The case was portrayed as the McDonald’s coffee burn case because the beverage was actually dangerously hot. McDonald’s had a corporate policy to serve the coffee at a temperature that could cause severe burns within seconds of contact. Ms. Liebeck offered to settle for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses, but the corporation only offered $800. The original punitive damage award was ultimately reduced by more than 80 percent by the judge. To avoid what would have been years of appeals, Mrs. Liebeck and McDonald’s later reached a confidential settlement.
Call (520) 792-4700 to schedule a free consultation with a Tucson personal injury with The Hameroff Law Firm, P.C. Half or more of our business comes from referrals from former clients. From truck accidents to wrongful death claims, our attorneys work hard to garner client trust and respect.