Reasonable Doubt: The million-dollar McDonald’s myth

Perhaps one of the most infamous lawsuits is the McDonalds coffee lawsuit. Kevin Yee separates myth from fact and gives a lawyer’s perspective on what happened.

Didn’t someone get millions for suing McDonald’s after spilling coffee on herself?

Once in a while, the media will pick up on a lawsuit that stands out amongst the countless others. With enough momentum, the odd lawsuit can capture the attention of the general public. The vast majority of these are quickly forgotten once the headlines stop coming. Rarer still are those cases that become part of our collective knowledge. These lawsuits stand the test of time and find a place somewhere between folklore and urban legend. Every now and then, they might pop up as a vague recollection or a talking point in a random conversation. Three words bring to mind a fantastic example of such a case: McDonald’s, coffee, and spill. This is the story of Stella Liebeck.

It’s been two decades but many people are still familiar with the case of Liebeck versus McDonald’s in one way or another. It’s easy to see why. It lends itself to so many intriguing narratives. For some, it’s a classic David versus Goliath battle where an individual takes on a massive corporation. It is also spun as a story of greed—greedy lawyers for a greedy plaintiff fighting the greedy corporation.

For others, this case is proof that the court system is broken. It has become a rallying cry for those who push for court reforms. After all, what’s more dysfunctional than someone getting awarded millions of dollars for spilling a hot beverage on herself? It’s a clumsy person making a frivolous lawsuit! A cash grab! A shake down! This rhetoric may be how you first came across the story. It’s a good reason why the case has gained its notoriety over the years. And just like a message in the game of Telephone, this story has twisted and turned with each telling. The story has been oversimplified. Details have been lost. Facts have been distorted. Nevertheless, many people have strong opinions about the case.

Recently, this story has been brought back into the limelight. It has become the subject of a documentary and a retrospective news piece. These help dispel the myths surrounding the case and uncover the misunderstood facts.

In 1992, a 79-year-old retiree named Stella Liebeck went to a McDonald’s in New Mexico. Liebeck’s grandson drove while she rode as a passenger. They picked up their order at the drive-thru and pulled over in the parking lot. Liebeck steadied her cup of coffee between her legs so she could add cream and sugar. When she popped open the lid, she spilled the coffee on herself. She suffered third-degree burns to her groin and pelvic area. She was hospitalized for eight days. She suffered burns to 16 percent of her body. They were so severe that she required skin grafting.

Liebeck reached out to McDonald’s for help for her medical expenses. When they couldn’t reach an agreement, she hired a lawyer and started a product liability lawsuit. The crux of the lawsuit, like any product liability lawsuit, is the argument that a company failed to ensure that its product was reasonably safe for its purposes. In Liebeck’s situation, it was that the coffee was served at a dangerously high temperature.

This lawsuit was heard before a jury in August 1994. Much evidence was presented in the eight-day trial that related to whether or not McDonald’s was liable for Liebeck’s injuries. There was evidence of Liebeck’s burns and her medical treatment. The company policy on their coffee temperature was brought to light. The coffee cups’ structure and printed warnings were looked at. In addition, there was evidence that the company had documented hundreds of burn victims from coffee spills. On that point, the defence argued that that number did not prove that McDonald’s coffee was being served dangerously given the sheer number of coffees they were selling.

The jury ultimately decided that McDonald’s failed to serve Liebeck’s coffee at a reasonably safe temperature. McDonald’s did not meet its duty to make its product safe. The jury also considered the fact that Liebeck spilled the coffee on herself. They decided that she was 20 percent at fault for her injuries. They valued Liebeck’s injuries and lost expenses at $200,000. They awarded her a reduced amount of $160,000 to account for their finding that Liebeck was 20 percent at fault.

In addition, the jury awarded Liebeck punitive damages based on their view of the conduct of McDonald’s. Unlike compensatory damages which look at the plaintiff, punitive damages relate to the defendant’s conduct. For this award, the jury awarded $2.7 million dollars. It is speculated that they chose this figure because it amounted to two days’ worth of McDonald’s coffee sales. This was how Liebeck’s lawyer suggested a punitive damages award be calculated. This million-dollar figure is what gave the story the legs that it had. International headlines, Seinfeld, pop cultural icons, and stand up comics all took notice; soon everyone else did.

The trial judge used his discretion to reduce the punitive damages award to $480,000. He came to this amount by tripling the compensatory damages award. This case was set for an appeal but both parties reached a settlement beforehand.

Considering how strong some people’s opinions are of this case, it is surprising at how much the facts are overlooked. The myth of this story may have given it the shelf life that it’s had, but the way this story has developed and the public’s reaction to it are just as intriguing.

A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer.

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