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The Myths of the McDonalds Hot Coffee Case

One of the most discussed personal injury lawsuits in history involved a cup of coffee from McDonalds. In February 1992, Stella Liebeck purchased a cup of coffee from a McDonalds drive through, while a passenger in her grandson’s car. While attempting to remove the lid off the cup to add cream and sugar, the entire cup of coffee spilled in Stella’s lap, soaking her sweatpants and causing third degree burns on several body parts including her thighs, groin and buttocks. Stella was hospitalized for eight days and underwent numerous surgical debridement and skin grafting procedures.

As Stella’s lawsuit against McDonalds progressed, her attorneys’ uncovered more than 700 complaints of burns from hot coffee made to McDonald’s between 1982 and 1992. The crux of the case against McDonalds centered around the temperature McDonalds served its coffee. Coffee needs to be brewed between 180 and 190 degrees, but served at a much lower temperate, such as 130-140 degrees, according to industry standards. Conversely, McDonalds held their coffee at more than 185 degrees until it was poured into the customer’s cup because the shelf life of the coffee lasted longer saving McDonalds money. During the trial, the experts testifying on behalf of Stella explained to the jury that while Stella may have been burned if coffee at 130 degrees had been spilled on her, the extent of her injuries would not been nearly as severe.

At the beginning of the case, Stella had offered to resolve the lawsuit for $20,000. McDonalds’ highest settlement offer was $800. After a trial in the matter, the jury awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages, which was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Stella 20% at fault. Additionally, the jury awarded $2.7 million dollars in punitive damages, or two days of McDonalds’ coffee sales revenue. After the trial, the judge reduced the punitive damages award to $480,000, but agreed that McDonalds had willfully disregarded the safety of its customers by keeping their coffee so hot prior to serving. Eventually, the case settled for an undisclosed amount.

Media outlets and special interest groups often only tell one side of the story when discussing a personal injury case. It is important to know all of the facts when evaluating a case. Stella Liebeck would not have achieved the result she deserved had it not been for the thoroughness and determination of her attorneys in pursuing her claim. At Levinson Axelrod, we pride ourselves on evaluating cases from every angle to ensure that our clients receive the compensation they deserve.


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