The Famous “Scalding Cup of Coffee” Personal Injury Lawsuit Explained
Most people over the age of 30 have heard about the famous “scalding cup of coffee” personal injury lawsuit. Many use it as a notorious example of the amount of “frivolous lawsuits” in the United States. The problem is that most people don’t know anything about the details of the case or why the jury awarded the plaintiff almost $3 million in punitive damages for the burns she suffered.
What you should know about the “scalding cup of coffee” personal injury lawsuit
The year was 1992 and then 79-year-old Stella Liebeck bought a cup of takeout coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She was a passenger in the parked car when she placed the cup between her knees and took the lid off to add cream and sugar. Unfortunately, the entire cup of coffee tipped over onto her lap and burned her severely. In fact, she suffered third-degree burns and required skin grafts on her inner thighs and elsewhere. In the end, Stella hired a personal injury attorney and sued McDonald’s for damages.
What went into the jury’s decision to award such high punitive damages?
There were other injuries
It turned out that Mrs. Liebeck was no where near the only person who had been injured by McDonald’s hot coffee. The corporation had received more than 700 previous reports of injury from its coffee, including third-degree burns, and had already paid settlements to some victims.
McDonald’s operations manual required franchisees to hold coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit.
Two expert witness testified that coffee at that temperature causes third-degree burns in three to seven seconds when spilled onto skin and that the risk associated with serving coffee at this temperature was unacceptable.
The company admitted to knowing about the risk that its hot coffee posed for 10 years and not doing anything about it. McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that McDonald’s coffee was not fit for consumption right after it was poured into cups because it would burn the mouth and throat and that consumers were not made aware of this risk. No explanation was given as to why they did not warn consumers.
Plaintiff tried to settle case for reasonable amount
Mrs. Liebeck offered to settle the case for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses and lost income but McDonald’s refused to offer more than $800.
The final settlement in the scalding hot coffee case
The jury felt punitive damages were appropriate because of McDonald’s unwillingness to correct a policy despite hundreds of people suffering injuries over a 10-year period. One of the jurors said the trial came down to the company’s “callous disregard for the safety of the people.”
The jury did find Mrs. Liebeck to be partially at fault for her injuries and reduced the compensation based on her percentage of fault. The jury awarded Liebeck the equivalent of two days’ worth of revenue from coffee sales for the restaurant chain but this original award was shrunk by more than 80 percent by the judge. Even after this reduction, Mrs. Liebeck and McDonald’s later reached a confidential settlement with the likely intention of avoiding years of appeals.
If you or a loved one is suffering from an injury as a result of an accident or error caused by the negligence of another, you have enough on your plate. Let an experienced accident attorney fight for the full compensation that you deserve. It is not uncommon to receive a settlement from the insurance company that is five to ten times bigger with the help of a lawyer. Call the personal injury lawyers at Tario & Associates, P.S. in Bellingham, WA today for a FREE consultation! We have been representing residents of Whatcom County, Skagit County, Island County and Snohomish County since 1979. You will pay nothing up front and no attorney fees at all unless we recover damages for you!