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The Infamous 1992 McDonald’s Coffee Personal Injury Case: What REALLY Happened?

By Alpert Schreyer on January 21, 2016

McDonalds coffee and coffee beansThe McDonald’s Coffee Incident

Even if you weren’t old enough to understand it 24 years ago, you most likely are familiar with this infamous personal injury case.  The 1992 McDonald’s coffee lawsuit concerning a cup of coffee that was served not just hot, but TOO hot…hot enough to cause serious burns.  Let’s revisit this historic case and learn the truth behind the controversy that surrounds the case to this day.

This case is most interesting to note because of all the rumors and speculation surrounding it, which led to a lot of misinformation being spread (and this was BEFORE the Internet took off!).  This misinformation led to many unfounded beliefs about the case, including the case being used as an example of personal injury law at its worst.  ABC News notoriously called this case “the poster child of excessive lawsuits,” while legal scholar, analyst and George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley said the complete opposite, calling the lawsuit “meaningful and worthy.”

At first glance, this case can understandably be viewed as excessive…so, someone sues McDonald’s for their coffee being too hot.  Big deal.  Coffee is SUPPOSED to be hot, right?  Who in their right mind would be surprised by hot coffee?

Upon a closer look, there was more to this case than what most people realize.  In addition, contrary to popular belief, the victim did NOT walk away with millions.

What Happened

The nuts and bolts of the case are pretty simple at the core:  79-year-old Stella Liebeck got a cup of coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque, New Mexico and, when removing the lid to add cream and sugar, spilled the entire cup in her lap.  As a result, she suffered third degree burns, which required skin grafting, and scalded her thighs, buttocks and groin.  She was hospitalized for 8 days and required care at home for 3 weeks afterward, which her daughter provided.

Liebeck wanted compensation to cover both actual and anticipated expenses, which included medical expenses and her daughter’s lost of income while caring for her, and offered to settle with McDonald’s for a sum of $20,000.  McDonald’s refused and instead offered her $800.  She then hired an attorney, who offered to settle for $90,000.  McDonald’s refused.  The settlement amount kept going higher as McDonald’s refused all pre-trial offers.

What most people aren’t aware of is that the serving temperature of McDonald’s coffee at the time was about 180 – 190 degrees, which causes third degree burns in as little as 2 seconds, and they had received close to 700 claims for serious injuries while refusing to lower the serving temperature.

The Court Ruling

Liebeck sought compensation for her present and anticipated medical bills stemming from the incident, but as McDonald’s refused settlement offers, the total settlement amount got higher and higher.

How high?  A jury awarded compensatory damages at $200,000 and punative damages in the amount of $2.7 million. The court subsequently reduced the compensatory damages to $160,000 and the punitive damages to $480,000. …a healthy sum to cover damages, but hardly the millions that so many believe she took home.  Liebeck died at the age of 91 twelve years later, with her daughter stating that the settlement basically paid for a live-in nurse for her later years.

If you find yourself injured in an accident, don’t take chances.  A free case evaluation with the personal injury attorneys of Alpert Schreyer is all you need to find out if you have a case and get you on the road to the compensation you may deserve.  Call us today or contact us here.  (I’ll have a link to the contact page in there)

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