McDonalds Hot Coffee Case: Bet You Didn’t Know That …

My post yesterday about what some people will probably deride as a “frivolous lawsuit” reminded me of another urban myth spun by the tort reformers, Liebeck vs. McDonald’s Corporation, and I thought you’d want to know the truth about what really happened.

Some of the top lies spread by the powerful business and tort reform lobbies:

1. Mrs. Liebeck was driving. No she wasn’t. Her grandson Chris was. After going through the drive through, Chris immediately pulled over in the parking lot and stopped his car so
his grandmother could open the lid to add cream and sugar. The car had no cup holder and the cup had no cardboard on the side (this happened in 1992).

But I hear the exact opposite from friends, clients, and worse, people who are being picked to serve on juries who always mention “that lady who was driving and spilled coffee on herself” as an example of how plaintiffs are abusing the judicial system. The supposedly level playing field is already tilted against the injured victim when this happens.

2. Mrs. Liebeck wasn’t injured. Yes she was, seriously. The media conveniently forgot to tell the public that she suffered horrificTHIRD degree burns to her genitals, buttocks, groin, and legs! She had to be rushed to the hospital where she spent eight painful days, suffering through multiple skin debridements and grafts to this extremely sensitive part of her body. She was badly scarred, couldn’t work and was disabled for two years.

3. Coffee is supposed to be hot. No, not 180 degrees hot. A hot tub is only about 100 to 105 degrees and McDonald’s fast food competitors all served their coffee at 135 to 140 degrees. But McDonalds wanted to make more money from people driving through and drinking later, even though it knew that over 700 other customers, including their infant children, had also suffered severe burns, An expert testified that drinking their coffee would cause third degree burns within only two to three seconds of drinking it. McDonald’s own quality assurance manager testified that the coffee was not safe for human consumption and that the company should have lowered the temperature but didn’t want to.

3. The plaintiff got millions of dollars. No she didn’t. The jury —- awarded damages of $200,000 for her estimated medical bills of $500,000, lost wages, disfigurement, and tremendous pain and suffering. The photo above is by no means the worst one the jury saw. But jurors assigned 20% of the blame to her so the judge reduced the $200,000 to $160,000. And the jury — appalled by the callous testimony of McDonald’s officials — added in rarely awarded punitive damages of only two days of the profit from coffee sales of $2.7 million, but the judge reduced that amount to $480,000. So the final verdict was $640,000, NOT millions.

And after years of appeals, a much lower confidential settlement was reached and poor Mrs. Liebeck probably received little money after fees, medical expenses, and court costs were paid.

4. She couldn’t wait to sue. No, she tried to settle out of court and only asked for $20,000, but McDonalds offered $800. An independent mediator recommended that it pay $225,000.

These facts are well documented. And yes, I just saw the excellent movie “Hot Coffee” again on HBO last week — and recommend that you watch it as well so you can learn the real facts about this famous court case, and how it has deformed the civil justice system.

The McDonald’s coffee case was not an example of an out of control court system. Just the opposite, it showed that one person can take on a giant and powerful company and make a difference: McDonald’s has since lowered its coffee to the much more reasonable 158 degrees, coffee cups have cardboard and are easier to open, and no one is needlessly suffering from third degree burns now.

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