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The Truth Behind the “McDonalds’ Hot Coffee Case”

We have all heard it for years. A woman spilled hot coffee in her lap and received a settlement of $3 million. This outrageous miscarriage of justice why we need to change the law and enact more “tort reform.”

Here are the actual facts:

  • Tella Liebeck, 79 years old, was in the front seat of her grandson’s car after having purchased a cup of coffee. After the car stopped, Mrs. Liebeck began removing the lid while the cup was between her legs.
  • The cup tipped over, pouring scalding hot coffee onto her. She received third-degree burns over 16 percent of her body and was hospitalized for 8 days while undergoing debridement of her burns, surgical skin grafting, scarring, and disability for over two years.
  • Despite these injuries, Mrs. Liebeck offered to settle with McDonalds for $20,000.
  • The jury awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages. This was reduced to $160,000 by the judge because the jury found her 20 percent at fault.
  • The evidence showed that McDonalds kept its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees, despite knowing that coffee at that temperature, if spilled causes third-degree burns in 2 to 7 seconds and despite a warning from the Shriner’s Burn Institute that beverages above 130 degrees cause scald burns.
  • From 1982 to 1992 McDonalds burned more than 700 men, women and children, many of whom filed claims and lawsuits.
  • McDonalds witnesses testified that, despite all of these burn injuries, they had no intention of turning down the heat.
  • The evidence showed that McDonalds made approximately $1.35 million per day from the sale of coffee.
  • The jury decided to send McDonalds a message to stop burning people by awarding punitive damages equal to two days sales of coffee— $2.7 million.
  • The punitive damages award was reduced to $480,000 by the judge and Mrs. Liebeck eventually settled out of court with McDonalds for less than $600,000.

For the past 22 years big business and the insurance industry have conducted massive propaganda campaigns to distort the truth in an attempt to limit their responsibility for injuries, to put caps on damages, and to limit people’s ability to seek redress in the courts. As we can see, the actual facts of the case do not warrant any change in the law or caps on damages. Unfortunately, these facts do not fit into a quick sound bite or on a bumper sticker.