Industry Lies Vol. V: The Truth Behind the “Hot Coffee” Lawsuit

June 28, 2013  |  Other

This blog is the fifth installment in the “Industry Lies” series intended to dispel the myths of tort law.

Have you ever heard about the woman who sued McDonald’s because she spilled hot coffee on her lap? Of course you have.  Everyone in America has heard of it. Those trying to quell the public justice system love to talk about it — the nameless woman who is continuously mocked and is the personification of so-called frivolous lawsuits. But rarely do you hear about the truth behind the legend that paints a vastly different story.

Her name was Stella Liebeck, an elderly woman who resided in New Mexico.  After accidentally spilling her coffee on her lap, she suffered third degree burns in her pelvic area.  These burns were so severe that Ms. Liebeck had to be hospitalized for eight days and had to undergo skin grafting. While hospitalized, she lost 20 lbs. to weigh a total of just 83 lbs.  Ms. Leibeck endured two years of medical treatment following her hospital stay.

Ms. Liebeck originally sought to recover $20,000 from McDonald’s to cover her medical expenses.  The fast food chain offered her $800 and refused to budge.  So the case went to the New Mexico District Court and became a modern American myth soon after.

During the trial, Ms. Liebeck’s attorney discovered that McDonald’s required its restaurants to serve their coffee between 180 and 190 degrees.  At these temperatures, a spill would cause third degree burns within two to seven seconds. Further evidence revealed that McDonald’s had received over 700 reports of customers being burned by their coffee at varying levels and had settled multiple claims.  Still, the restaurant refused to serve its coffee at lower temperatures, even though McDonald’s Quality Control Manager, Christopher Appleton, argued that all foods hotter than 130 degrees constituted a burn hazard.

After hearing the evidence, the jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million of punitive damages.  This amount was later reduced to $480,000 for a total of $640,000.  McDonald’s appealed the verdict and eventually settled the case with Ms. Lienbeck outside of court for an undisclosed amount lower than $600,000.

This is the truth.  Ms. Lienbeck wasn’t out to make millions.  She wasn’t a greedy person trying to take advantage of an unassuming company, but corporate lobbyists who are trying to pass laws that would put limits on people’s rights to justice have grossly misrepresented the story of the “hot coffee” lawsuit.  Ms. Lienbeck’s pain and suffering has been trivialized and she has been made out to be a villain in a fictional narrative that the public, unfortunately, has been led to believe.

Corporate lobbyists may have power on their side, but they do not have the truth.  Ms. Lienbeck’s story is just one of many that have been manipulated to support new laws that would benefit corporations and inhibit individuals from seeking justice. 

Baron and Budd is committed to helping people like Ms. Lienbeck and allowing their voices to be heard.  For over 35 years, our law firm has worked to bring justice to companies that have wronged the public in one way or another, and we have no plans of slowing down any time soon.

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