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McDonald’s’ Lawsuit Anything But Frivolous

McDonald’s’ Lawsuit Anything But Frivolous

One of the most talked about personal injuries case in recent history, Stella Liebeck’s lawsuit in 1994 has been used politically to attack “frivolous lawsuits;” but the 1994 case, where Liebeck sued McDonald’s after she was severely burnt by a cup of their coffee, was anything but frivolous. The lawsuit became a turning point in the legal struggle to get companies to follow safety standards.

Liebeck, then 79, was riding in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car, holding a cup of McDonald’s coffee. When the car was stopped, she placed it between her knees to take the lid off; but the cup tipped over, and scalding hot coffee poured into her lap. Liebeck was seriously injured, sustaining third-degree burns over 16% of her body; she needed eight days of hospitalization followed by whirlpool treatment debridement of her wounds, skin grafting, scarring, and disability for more than two years.

She offered to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000, which pretty much excluded punitive damages, just covering her medical expenses; McDonald’s refused to settle for this small amount, never offering more than $800. In the trial that followed, a jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages (decreased to to $160,000 because the jury found her 20% at fault), and awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages for McDonald’s heartless conduct. These damages were reduced by the judge down to $480,000, but he wrote that McDonald’s had engaged in “willful, wanton, and reckless” behavior. To put the punitive damages award in perspective: in 1994, McDonald’s made $1.3 million in coffee sales alone, daily. Eventually, Liebeck and McDonald’s settled for an undisclosed amount.

Central to the trial (which gets ignored when politicians and others hold up the story as an example of frivolity in the legal system) was the actual cup of coffee, which McDonald’s admitted was “not fit for consumption” when sold, because it causes severe scalds if spilled or drunk. At that time, the McDonald’s Operations Manual required the franchisee to hold its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit; coffee at this temperature will cause third-degree burns in three to seven seconds when it meets skin. Liebeck had not been the first victim of scalding hot McDonald’s coffee, either—between 1982 to 1992, McDonald’s coffee burned more than 700 people, many receiving severe burns to the genital area, perineum, inner thighs, and buttocks. Infants and children had also been burned (sometimes accidentally by McDonald’s employees); McDonald’s admitted in court that it had known about the risk of serious burns from its scalding coffee for more than ten years. Other lawsuits had been brought, but none had succeeded before Liebeck’s. Her physician testified that her scald burns were the worst he had ever seen.

And there had been warnings from the medical community. The Shriner’s Burn Institute in Cincinnati published warnings to the franchise food industry that its members were needlessly causing serious scald burns by serving beverages above 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Liebeck’s suit finally called McDonald’s to account; today, their coffee is served at 130 degrees Farenheit, and their cups are printed with burn warnings. This has become standard practice in the franchise food industry, and with many coffee sellers also.

If you or someone you care for has suffered an injury as a result of negligence, you have options. Contact Mike Agruss Law, at 312-224-4695 for a free consultation. We are a Chicago injury law firm representing individuals and families who have suffered an injury or loss due to an accident. Mike Agruss Law, will handle your personal injury case quickly, will advise you every step of the way, and will not hesitate to go to trial for you.

Lastly, Mike Agruss Law, does not get paid attorney’s fees unless we win your case. Our no-fee promise is that simple. Therefore, you have nothing to risk when you hire us–just the opportunity to seek justice.

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