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The Truth about the McDonald's Coffee Burn Case

By Adam Cahn, Esq.

It has been 22 years since Stella Liebeck accidentally poured boiling hot McDonald's coffee on her lap and got burned, and still not a month goes by without one of my clients telling me an offer to settle their case is too low and cites the amount of money the woman at McDonald's received.

The facts of that case never seem to matter—the story has become urban legend and, each year, the amount of money people remember Ms. Liebeck receiving for her injuries grows. At last count, people think she got more than $10 million.

Here are the actual facts of the case: Ms. Liebeck was 79 years of age at the time of the accident. She bought a cup of coffee at a drive-thru McDonald's in New Mexico and placed the cup between her thighs. It spilled and she suffered second- and third-degree burns to her thighs, buttocks and crotch — 6% of her body.

Ms. Liebeck initially requested that McDonald's pay her $20,000 to settle the matter. McDonald's countered with $800. Prior to trial, her attorneys increased the demand to $300,000 and a mediator recommended a settlement of $225,000, to which McDonald's refused. McDonald's felt that Ms. Liebeck used bad judgment putting the cup between her legs and spilled it herself. The case went to trial and the jury came back with a verdict of $200,000 in damages for her injuries, which the trial judge thought was too high and reduced it to $160,000.

The jury also awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages, an award designed not to reward the victim, but instead to punish the defendant for egregious conduct. The reason they felt McDonald's needed to be punished was that the restaurant's own witnesses admitted the following: the coffee was 185 degrees, which is dangerous and undrinkable; McDonald's kept the temperature that high because it stayed fresher longer; McDonald's was aware the coffee was dangerously hot, but stated that the number of reported burns in relation to the total number of cups sold was not high enough to justify the temperature modification; and, lastly, there were no warnings on the cup advising customers how badly burned one could get from this temperature. On appeal, the Court reduced the punitive damages to $480,000 — not quite the $10 million people remember.

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