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McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case: What Were The Real Facts? And Do They Support Tort Reform?

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McDonalds Hot Coffee Case

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Way back in February of 1992, an elderly woman named Stella Liebeck burned herself on McDonald’s hot coffee while holding the cup between her legs when she was driving, which was a highly offensive form of jackpot justice.  She was the undeserving recipient of the most outrageous variety of lawsuit lottery winnings the country had ever seen.  Or at least that’s the wholly incorrect version many “consumer” or “citizens” groups (which are often big business groups in disguise), mainstream media, stand-up comics, and even some Republican Congressmen over the years would have you believe.

Hot Coffee Led To An Erosion Of Civil Justice Like Our Country Has Never Seen Before

But that’s just not what happened. The ongoing tragedy is that completely false facts about the McDonald’s hot coffee case have driven and inspired tort “reform” efforts over the last 20 years.  These so-called reforms have increasingly prevented average Americans from bringing lawsuits when a corporation or negligent person has harmed them, their children or their loved ones.

So What Really Happened In The Hot Coffee Case?

investigate real facts of hot coffee caseAs an Orlando personal injury attorney, if someone called me with the same set of facts today, I would jump to pursue a claim against McDonald’s.  Ms. Liebeck was entirely reasonable from the beginning.  According to media reports, she sent McDonald’s a letter asking that they pay her medical bills (which media reports indicate were around 10K when she wrote the letter for a week in the hospital and serious burn injury treatment).  Yet, again according to news reports, McDonald’s refused to be reasonable (they offered her a whopping $800 to settle the case).  According to various media reports, as well as Ms. Liebeck’s attorney, these were the true facts of the case:

• Ms. Liebeck was a passenger in her grandson’s car when they drove through the McDonald’s drive-through, then parked the car so that she could put sugar and cream in her coffee.

• While wearing sweat pants, she held the coffee in between her legs so that she could remove the lid.  There were no cup holders or level surfaces in the vehicle.

• After she removed the lid, the 180 to 190 degree Fahrenheit coffee spilled in between her legs, which the sweat pants held near her skin for an extended period.  McDonald’s operations manual required their franchisees to keep the coffee at that temperature.

Coffee at that temperature, if spilled onto the skin, causes third-degree burns in 2 to 7 seconds.

burn injury lawsuitsThird degree burn injuries will not heal without skin grafting (removing skin from one area of the body to surgically place over the burned area), debridement (surgical removal of dead, damaged, or infected skin tissue), and whirlpool treatments. These types of burn injuries often lead to permanent disfigurement, along with extreme pain for an extended period.  Burn injuries and the excruciating treatment are widely recognized as some of the worst and most painful of any bodily injury.  Photos of Ms. Liebeck’s burn injuries.

• In the McDonald’s case, well-respected and leading burn injury experts testified that the risk of burn injury harm was unacceptably high.

• Amazingly, McDonald’s admitted that it knew about the risk of serious harm for more than 10 years and had received over 700 complaints about burns over that period, including many severe burns in the genital, perineum, inner thigh and buttock area, and some injuries to children and infants.

• McDonald’s witnesses admitted that consumers did not understand the nature and extent of the risk.  They also admitted that they did not warn customers about those aspects of the risk.

Really amazingly, McDonald’s witnesses testified that they did not intend to turn down the heat.

• McDonald’s witnesses admitted that their coffee was not fit for consumption.

Why Was This So Bad?

I’ve had some people tell me they believe Ms. Liebeck was to blame for various reasons, including that she should have expected hot coffee to spill and possibly burn, she had a car that didn’t have cup holders, she was wearing sweat pants, and some people have even said that she was too blame because she was more frail, since she was older (meaning: the injuries would have been less severe in a younger person).  But the law requires corporations to behave in a reasonable manner (when plaintiffs sue a corporation, the jury must decide whether the corporate representatives behaved as a reasonable person when making corporate decisions).  In the McDonald’s case, as a mega corporation serving millions of customers daily by drive-through service, if behaving in a reasonable manner as required by law, McDonald’s should anticipate serving customers driving all types of vehicles.  Additionally, McDonald’s should anticipate that some people will be wearing clothing that might hold hot beverages near their skin.  The corporation also takes any plaintiff as they find her.  (This is called the “egg shell plaintiff” rule.)  In other words, saying that someone was more hurt because they are sickly or old simply is not a defense.  Our legal system does not blame old people for being old, for example.  Rather, the law requires corporations to provide safe products and service for everyone.

What Amount Did The Jury Award In Damages And Why?

Before trial, according to news reports, Ms. Liebeck offered to settle the case for $20,000.  But what damages did the jury award and why?  I explain the financial outcome of this case, along with why I strongly believe the monetary award was reasonable and actually low, in Part II of this article.

Disclaimer

This facts explained in this article about the McDonald’s Hot Coffee case were taken from news reports.

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  • Where Do I Accept Cases
    If you want my honest assessment of your burn injury, or other personal injury case, please feel free to call me today for a free consultation. (No Fee if No Recovery, Excludes Costs.) Although my offices are in Orlando and Winter Garden, Florida, I accept cases anywhere in Florida or Georgia, including nearby cities such as Clermont, Dr. Phillips, Ocoee, Lakeland, Apopka, Altamonte Springs, Maitland, Winter Park, Casselberry, Winter Springs, Tavares, Mount Dora, Eustis, Leesburg, Kissimmee, Deland, Deltona, Daytona Beach, Heathrow, Melbourne, Tampa, Miami, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Valdosta, Macon & Atlanta.
  • How Do You Spot A Personal Injury Case When You See One?
    Orlando Personal injury cases arise from all sorts of accidents, including department store slip and fall accidents, poor security accidents, auto accidents, commercial vehicle accidents, commercial trucking accidents, SUV accidents, bicycle accidents, pedestrian accidents, unsafe drugs or medical devices, unsafe products, cruise ship accidents, swimming pool accidents, theme park accidents, or any other accident or injury caused wholly or partly by someone else.
  • What Types Of Injuries Might Be The Basis Of A Lawsuit?
     Types of injuries may include anything from soft tissue (muscles, tendons & ligaments), to more serious burns, broken bones, lacerations, bulging or herniated discs, spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, amputations, medication side effects (for example, heart attack or stroke), and death.

Related Posts:

Why Were The Damages So High In The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case?

Do Personal Injury Attorneys Take Frivolous Lawsuits, Part I

Florida Supreme Court Reviews Data Re Frivolous Lawsuits And Resoundingly Rejects The Myths

Think Twice Before Hiring A Settlement Mill Firm

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About the Author:

Tina Willis is a Florida & Georgia personal injury & wrongful death attorney. This includes auto accidents, slip and fall accidents, products & premises liability cases, as well as medical malpractice cases.

Ms. Willis operates a boutique law firm from Orlando, Florida, focused on maintaining a reasonable case load so that she can provide personalized service to each and every one of her clients. She spends a tremendous amount of time helping her clients understand how they can help increase the value of their cases, sometimes significantly.

After graduating second in her class from Florida State University College of Law in 1995, Ms. Willis worked as an attorney for two large Atlanta defense firms, where she practiced employment and excess insurer defense. Ms. Willis also worked as a professor of Civil Procedure & Advanced Legal Writing at Barry University in Orlando, Florida. Ms. Willis has a “superb” AVVO rating, and was selected by the National Trial Lawyers, as a “Top 100 Trial Lawyer.”

She now devotes her passion and compassion to her unwavering goal of helping her clients fully achieve the justice they deserve, in the form of maximum compensation for their injuries and losses. Before you hire another law firm, you owe it to yourself to hear what Ms. Willis has to say. Consultations and representation never cost you a penny until she wins your case.

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