The McDonald’s Lawsuit: 30 Years Later

In 1992, 79 year-old Stella Liebeck accidently spilled scolding hot McDonald’s coffee on her lap. She suffered third-degree burns on her legs and groin area. Those burns required many hospital stays, skin grafts and resulted in lost income and paying out of pocket for medical bills.

She offered the fast food chain a settlement of $20,000, thinking that would be fair and cover her lost income and medical bills. But McDonald’s lawyers came back with an insulting offer of just $800.

Stella had burns over 16 percent of her body. And McDonald’s only wanted to give her $800. So a lawsuit was filed. When the case went to trial, jurors saw the graphic photos of her burns. Then they heard testimony from experts on how hot coffee should be served and how McDonald’s was serving their coffee. As it turned out McDonald’s coffee was 30-40 degrees hotter.

Then it was revealed to the jury that over 700 other people had been burned by McDonald’s coffee, yet the company did nothing to change their serving protocols or their policies on how hot to make the coffee. McDonald’s knew it’s coffee was causing burns, but with billions of cups served every year, the number of burns was insignificant. It was a classic case of money over safety.

As the trial came to a close, it was revealed that the jurors had awarded Stella $200,000 in compensatory damages for her pain, suffering, and medical costs. But that award was reduced by $40,000 to $160,000 as the jury found Stella 20 percent responsible. The jury also awarded Stella $2.7 million in punitive damages. Although the trial judge reduced that amount to $480,000. Then the parties later settled for a confidential amount that was reportedly less than $500,000.

To this day, people still believe Ms. Liebeck received millions for spilling coffee on her lap. And used the court system to her benefit. When in reality all she was concerned about was the number of other people (and that included children) who had been burned. She was crusading for them and trying to the right the wrong that had gone on far too long.

In the end, her story like many others revealed a pattern of harm and corporate misbehavior that put consumers at unreasonable risk. Her case put McDonald’s on notice. And essentially got them to rethink safety when it comes to how their coffee is served. It wasn’t enough to say “contents hot” they had to place warning messages in conspicuous areas that told consumers how hot it is and that it could cause serious burns.  

So why do we share this great information with you? We share it to give you an insight on past cases and how those outcomes can make a difference in consumer safety. The McDonald’s coffee spill lawsuit although 30 years old, is still a case most people have heard about and have possibly thought about when getting a cup of coffee.

But it’s also how most people when injured think about lawsuits. They just want their lives back. They want the other party to acknowledge their negligence and compensate them for any lost income or medical bills. And when that doesn’t happen, those that were injured contact a law firm. 

The Law Offices of David W. Holub is a personal injury law firm located in Merrillville, Indiana, focused on providing efficient and effective client-centered representation. Our mission is to provide top quality legal representation, which includes an uncompromising pursuit of our client’s legal interests, while being accessible and attentive to our clients during times of personal challenge.

The firm concentrates in personal injury cases of all types, medical malpractice, and wrongful death litigation. We work tirelessly to serve each client aggressively and with empathy, to communicate regularly and clearly, and to obtain prompt and favorable results, while adhering to the highest standards of excellence and integrity. Our team considers it a high honor to be called upon to serve our clients whom we often come to regard as our friends. Call our number (219)736-9700 for assistance today.

*If you would like to learn more about personal injury law, we encourage you to listen to our Personal Injury Primer Podcast where we break down the law into simple terms, provide legal tips, and discuss topics related to personal injury law. And read “Fighting for Truth: A Trial Lawyer’s Insight into What It Takes to Win” an entertaining and enlightening book pulling readers into the courtroom giving them a glimpse of the legal process and what it takes to win at trial.

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