Common Misconceptions About the Hot Coffee Case

One of the more well-known personal injury cases that many people are aware of is the “McDonald’s hot coffee case” of a few years ago. This case really caught on in the media because it seemed unbelievable, but some simple explanations that were unearthed during the course of the case make it much easier to believe and understand. It is often assumed that the woman who was the plaintiff of the case, Stella Liebeck, made a frivolous lawsuit and took advantage of the legal system to get rich. With sensationalized facts about cases like this, some people assume that this is a pattern for personal injury suits. To get to the bottom of these assumptions, let’s examine the five most common misconceptions about the famous hot coffee case.

McDonald's hot coffee case

Misconception #1: Stella Liebeck was driving

There is a popular belief that the woman who was burned by the hot coffee in this case was driving when the coffee spilled on her. The truth is that she was sitting in the passenger seat, being driven by her son. They went through the drive-thru at McDonald’s, and Stella Liebeck’s son handed her the coffee she had ordered. They then parked in a stall in the McDonald’s parking lot. Ms. Liebeck was holding the coffee cup solidly between her legs as she took off the lid to add cream and sugar, when the cup tipped toward her, badly burning her thighs and groin. She was taken to the hospital for emergency care, and eventually underwent a debridement, during which doctors use surgical tools to scrape away remaining scar tissue from burns before any other treatment can take place.

Misconception #2: What’s the big deal about spilling coffee?

Some people might say that spilled coffee is no big deal, and it happens to everyone at some point or another. But the truth is that this incident was unique because of the temperature of the coffee and the injuries that it caused. Ms. Liebeck suffered excruciating severe injuries. She was in the hospital for quite some time enduring surgeries and skin grafts. She was left with permanent damage and serious pain. Ms. Liebeck’s case was clearly more serious than a frivolous offense.

Misconception #3: Ms. Liebeck was eager and waiting to sue

Some people have the impression that Ms. Liebeck went quickly to an attorney with the intent to sue McDonald’s for a lot of money, as though she knew exactly what she was doing. In fact, Ms. Liebeck had gone to McDonald’s first to request help with her growing medical bills due to the accident. When they declined to help, Ms. Liebeck sought legal help. She was counseled that the only option as this point was to file a lawsuit to get the compensation she deserved for the injury inflicted by McDonald’s coffee.

Misconception #4: The high temperature of the coffee was unintentional

It is very surprising for many people to learn that McDonald’s purposely served the coffee they sold at a temperature high enough that it could inflict third degree burns immediately if it made contact with skin. McDonald’s reasoned that most of their coffee customers bought their coffee, then drove to work. At this point the coffee would be the perfect temperature to drink. Although the hot temperature was dangerous, McDonald’s was selling too much coffee to care about the risk.

The jury decided that this practice was unsafe, and that McDonald’s was breaching its duty of care to the public. The plaintiff suggested to the jury that Ms. Liebeck be awarded compensation equal to one day’s coffee sales. The jury agreed to settle the case with that suggestion, and that award resulted in millions of dollars. But things did not end up with a multimillion dollar check for Ms. Liebeck.

Misconception #5:The plaintiff received millions of dollars in damages

While much of the public believes that Ms. Liebeck became a millionaire overnight after the hot coffee case, the amount she received was far less. The jury awarded her compensatory damages to rectify the pain and suffering she experienced to some degree. They also awarded some punitive damages, which are monies meant to punish the defendant and incentivise them to uphold better practices in the future. The defendant has to pay this amount, and it should be large enough to sting a bit for the defendant, which in this case is McDonald’s, a gigantic company.

When punitive damages are involved in a case, the Judge might use his power to amend the amount awarded. Here, the jury awarded one amount to punish McDonald’s, but the Judge ruled that it was excessive, and thereby reduced way down to a much smaller amount. The judge in the Liebeck case made the decision that the punitive damages were excessive for the scenario and the damage incurred. He decreased the figure suggest for punitive damages to a fraction of what the jury had decided on.

At the end of it all, McDonald’s still appealed. They did this even though the damages they were asked to pay were low respective to their wealth. People don’t realize how hard it can be to get a Defendant to hand over money in a timely manner, even when the Defendant is in the wrong. But McDonald’s didn’t want to let this process drag out in court for year, and neither did Ms. Liebeck and her attorney. Liebeck was behind on medical bills and ready to settle. At that point, McDonald’s offered her a settlement that was only a fraction of the fraction of what the jury had first decided for her. Her attorney accepted that amount out of near desperation to get anything for the case at that point. So even though Ms. Liebeck initially did get a jury award for several million, she received a dollar amount that was much less. The settlement that Ms. Liebeck and her attorney accepted from McDonald’s is unknown, but many legal professionals and press believe it to be around $400K.

These are five misconceptions about the well-known McDonald’ hot coffee case. Understanding the truths about this case can help you to understand how large personally injury cases might go.

by Andrew Spainhower

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