Law Offices of John P. DiBartolo, Jr.

Hot Coffee and getting burned by corporate media

Most people have heard about the McDonald’s hot coffee case, but few people actually know the facts of the case.  Over 20 years have passed since an elderly woman named Stella Liebeck purchased a cup of coffee at McDonald’s that caused her 3rd degree burns when she spilled it in an attempt to remove the lid to add cream and sugar.

Most people have heard about the McDonald’s hot coffee case, but few people actually know the facts of the case.  Over 20 years have passed since an elderly woman named Stella Liebeck purchased a cup of coffee at McDonald’s that caused her 3rd degree burns when she spilled it in an attempt to remove the lid to add cream and sugar.

The coffee was so hot that when she spilled it, it caused full thickness burns (or third-degree burns) over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. She was hospitalized for eight days, and required skin graft surgery.  McDonald’s own expert testified that it was so hot as to be unfit for human consumption.  The company kept the coffee at a temperature between 180 and 190 degrees—a temperature that will cause 3rd degree burns within 2-7 seconds of contact with skin.

McDonald’s refused to pay the $20,000 Ms. Liebeck’s lawyers requested. The jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. The trial judge reduced that amount to $160,000 because the jury found Ms. Liebeck 20% at fault in the spill. The jury also awarded Ms. Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages—these damages were meant to punish McDonald’s for knowing perpetuating the dangerous holding temperature of the coffee, even after hundreds of prior incidents.  That $2.7 million was not arbitrary; the jury came up with the figure because it represented just two days of McDonald’s coffee sales. The trial judge subsequently reduced the punitive award too.  Even though the judge referred to McDonald’s conduct as reckless, callous and willful, the punitive damages were reduced to $480,000—three times compensatory damages—or less than half of McDonald’s coffee sales for just a day.
Notwithstanding the severity of Ms. Liebeck’s injuries or the dangerousness of McDonald’s practices, corporate media ran a campaign to distort the public perception of the case and mischaracterize the ultimate verdict as a failing of the civil justice system.  The goal was to affect public perception, influence future jury verdicts and generally limit the average citizen’s access to the justice system.

In 2011, a documentary film called Hot Coffee was released.  The film addresses the impact of tort reform on our judicial system. More information about the movie is available here: http://www.hotcoffeethemovie.com.  I encourage everyone to see the film, which covers other cases involving the limitations being imposed on access to civil justice, and to share what they learn with friends and family.
 

A great 12 minute video on Youtube can be found here: