Injury lawyers in Charleston and the world at large have all heard about the woman who spilled McDonald’s coffee, sued and received $3 million in damages. Despite her severe third degree burn injuries in her groin and private areas of her body and her willingness to settle out of court on numerous occasions prior to the jury’s verdict, the truth is that the woman actually received much much less. Here are the facts of this widely misreported and misunderstood case.
A 79 year old woman by the name of Stella Liebeck was sitting in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car after purchasing a scolding hot cup of McDonald’s coffee. After the car stopped, she tried to hold the cup between her knees so that she could remove the lid. However, the cup tipped backward and into her lap pouring scalding hot coffee onto her groin. She received 3rd degree burns over 16 percent of her body causing her to be hospitalized for 8 days. During her hospital stay and in the two years that followed, she underwent whirlpool treatment for debridement of her wounds and skin grafting surgeries to repair her wounds. Despite all these medical efforts, she was left with severe permanent scarring and disability. Even though plaintiff had extensive and debilitating injuries, she offered to settle with McDonald’s for only $20,000. However, McDonald’s refused to settle. Stella took McDonald’s to court. The jury deliberated and awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages. Said damages were reduced to a mere $160,000 because the jury found that she was at least 20 percent at fault. The jury further awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages (i.e. damages meant to punish a wrongdoer for bad conduct) for McDonald’s callous conduct in not lowering the temperature of its coffee despite being on notice of its harmful injuries to at least 700 other victims. One factor considered in the jury’s analysis when awarding punitive damages was that McDonald’s revenue from coffee sales alone is in excess of $1.3 million a day. Despite these facts, the trial judge again reduced claimant’s award and reduced the punitive damages to $480,000. The parties later settled out of court. Below is some of the evidence the jury heard in the case.
- McDonald’s sold its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit;
- If coffee at that temperature comes into contact with human flesh, it causes third-degree burns (i.e. that is that the skin will be burned away down to the fatty-tissue and/or muscle layer of the victims body) somewhere between 2 to 7 seconds;
- 3rd degree burns do not heal. The victim must undergo skin grafting to repair the damaged areas of the body. Debridement and whirlpool treatments will cost the victim tens of thousands of dollars and despite said treatments, the victim will still have very serious and permanent scarring and disfigurement. They will also experience extreme pain and disability for many months or years as they recover. Some never recover.
- Department of mechanical engineering and bio-mechanical engineering chairman at the University of Texas testified at trial and taught the jury that the risk of harm in selling coffee this hot is unacceptable. The editor in chief of the leading scholarly publication in the specialty, the Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation also testified on behalf of the Plaintiff.
- McDonald’s admitted at trial that it knew about the risk of serious burns from its coffee for more than 10 years but did nothing about it.
- Over a 10 year period, McDonald’s coffee burned more than 700 vicitms. Many of those injured received severe burns to the genital area, perineum, inner thighs, and buttocks.
- McDonald’s victims included children and infants. Some of these victims were burned by the inadvertent spillage by McDonald’s employees.
- At least one woman had coffee dropped in her lap through the service window, causing third-degree burns to her inner thighs and other sensitive areas, which resulted in disability for years.
- At trial, several of McDonald’s witnesses admitted in court that the public is not aware of the extent of the risk of serious burns from their spilled coffee.
- At trial, McDonald’s admitted that it did not warn consumers of the risk associated with drinking their coffee.
- In court, McDonald’s witnesses also admitted that despite all of the victims and injuries from their coffee, they had no plans to lower the temperature of their coffee.
- Importantly, McDonald’s candidly admitted that its coffee is not fit for consumption when sold because it causes severe scalds if spilled or drunk;
Moreover, the Shriner’s Burn Institute in Cincinnati had published warnings to the franchise food industry that its members were unnecessarily causing serious scald burns by serving beverages above 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
In refusing to grant a new trial in the case, Judge Robert Scott called McDonald’s behavior “callous.” Moreover, “the day after the verdict, the news media documented that coffee at the McDonald’s in Albuquerque [where Liebeck was burned] is now sold at 158 degrees. This will cause third-degree burns in about 60 seconds, rather than in two to seven seconds [so that], the margin of safety has been increased as a direct consequence of this verdict.”
Source: Morgan, The Recorder, September 30, 1994