Like most people, you’ve probably heard about the lady who sued McDonalds and won millions because her coffee was too hot. The perfect example of a greedy individual taking advantage of a broken system, right? I mean that’s what the news reported? Right? What if I told you that everything you thought you knew about the “Hot Coffee” case was wrong.
The story goes that a woman burned herself trying to drink her McDonalds coffee while driving so she sued McDonalds because her hot coffee was too… hot. And she won millions of dollars. Get the facts. And judge for yourself whether this was really a case of a greedy plaintiff or a greedy corporation that knew people were being horribly burned and did nothing because it was cheaper for them not to.
In February of 1992, Stella Liebeck was a front seat passenger in her grandson’s car when they went to a McDonald’s drivethrough in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After getting their food and a cup of coffee, her grandson stopped briefly so that she could add cream and sugar. She placed the coffee between her legs and in the process of taking the lid off, some coffee spilled onto her lap. Normally, coffee is served at around 140 degrees. This coffee was between 180 and 190 degrees. Basically, that’s hot enough to cause horrible third degree burns. Understandably, the shock and pain led to Ms. Liebeck spilling even more coffee onto her lap.
For starters, why serve the coffee so hot? Well, its cheaper to do it that way. The resulting severe burns to Ms. Liebeck’s thighs and genital area are contained below. Fair warning – they are graphic.
Warning – This Link Contains Graphic Images
Ms. Liebeck was hospitalized for 8 days for third degree full thickness burns on her thighs and genitals. She had to undergo skin grafts and follow up debridement treatments where they would cut away dead or rotting flesh.
Not only was McDonald’s doing something dangerous to save money, but THEY KNEW PEOPLE WERE BEING BADLY BURNED! McDonald’s own documents showed that they were aware of over 700 cases where customers were badly burned by the coffee between 1982 to 1992. But it was cheaper to do nothing.
At first, Ms. Liebeck and her family just wanted McDonald’s to cover her medical expenses in relation to this incident. They weren’t after some big payday. Just the medical bills that piled up because of McDonald’s disregard for its customer’s safety. McDonald’s refused. After filing the lawsuit and prior to trial, the demand to resolve the case was $20,000.00. Not a small amount of money to be sure, but not the millions of dollars you heard about. At trial, McDonald’s own witnesses admitted that the temperature they served coffee at was “NOT SAFE FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION”.
After hearing about McDonald’s knowledge that people were getting hurt and disregard for its customers’ safety, the jury found that they were at fault for the accident and awarded Ms. Liebeck $200,000.00. Because the jury acknowledged Ms. Liebeck was partially at fault for the accident as well, they attributed 20% to her and reduced the award to $160,000.00. But because McDonald’s conduct was so reprehensible, they awarded $2.7 million dollars in punitive damages, which was eventually reduced by the judge to $480,000.00. To give you an idea, that’s less than McDonald’s makes from the sales of its coffee in a single day.
This is a story about a greedy corporation ignoring that it was hurting people and a victim taking them to account for it. But that’s not the story you hear about. Millions of dollars were spent to spin the story that became the more well known version of events. You hear about a greedy woman taking advantage of a broken and unfair system. Well we are in agreement that someone here took advantage of the system, but now you know the facts and you can make up your own mind about who the real villain was here.