The Truth About the McDonald’s Coffee Case

The McDonald’s scalding coffee lawsuit always seems to find its way into the mainstream media. There is an attitude prevalent, that in the American judicial system, a person can sue for anything and possibly become rich. The McDonald’s case contributes to this collective feeling. However, most people are grossly misinformed when it comes to the facts of the case.

While most do not favor frivolous lawsuits, it is imperative to remember that not all facts were reported when this case took to the media. Before the lawsuit ensued, McDonalds coffee was extremely hot—to the point that if it touched your skin, the coffee had the capability to destroy the skin, flesh, and muscle instantaneously.

Here is a recap of the whole story:

The Plaintiff in the McDonalds case—Stella Liebeck, was sitting in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car in the drive-through lane of a McDonalds when she was brutally burned by McDonalds coffee in 1992. Liebeck was 79 years-old at the time of the incident, and was served scalding hot coffee in a Styrofoam cup from the drive-through window.

Once Liebeck and her grandson received their orders, the grandson drove his car away from the restaurant and halted briefly so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. In order to place these contents in her coffee, Liebeck placed the coffee between her knees and endeavored to remove the plastic lid. As she was slowly taking off the lid to the coffee, the entire beverage poured into her lap.

At the time of the incident, Liebeck was wearing sweatpants, which soaked up the scalding hot coffee and maintained the contents directly on her skin. A vascular surgeon opined that Liebeck experienced third-degree burns in more than sixpercent of her body, including the inner thigh region of both her legs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. Liebeck had to stay in the hospital for eightdays, where she had to have skin grafting procedures and debridement treatments to repair tissue in her body. Liebeck wanted to settle her claim with McDonalds for $20,000, but McDonalds declined to settle.

Once the lawsuit ensued, McDonalds produced over 700 claims from people who also suffered third-degree burns by its coffee between the years 1982 to 1992. This ten-year span documented McDonalds’ awareness of its scalding hot coffee and the harm it can cause people. It also introduced facts showing that McDonalds made its coffee at a temperature of 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas other establishments sell their coffee at significantly lower temperatures.

Moreover, coffee served at home is typically 40 to 45 degrees cooler than McDonalds coffee. McDonalds’ quality assurance manager testified that McDonalds strictly adheres to a requirement that the coffee must be kept in a pot at 185 degrees, plus or minus five degrees.

Additionally, he acknowledged that a burn hazard exists with any food substance served at or over 140 degrees, and that McDonalds coffee poured into Styrofoam cups was not fit for consumption because it will burn the mouth and throat. Even after the McDonalds’ quality assurance manager admitted these details, he affirmed that McDonalds has no intention of reducing the scalding hot temperature of its coffee.

One of Liebeck’s experts in the case was a scholar in thermodynamics as it pertains to human skin burns, and he testified that not only would a 180 degree Fahrenheit burn cause a third-degree burn between 2 and 7 seconds, but that if the coffee that burned Liebeck was only 155 degrees as opposed to 180 degrees, the liquid would not have given her third-degree burns. During the case, McDonalds had claimed that its customers bought coffee on their way to work or home, intending to consume it at either of those places.

Nevertheless, McDonalds’ research showed that its customers would like and intend to drink the coffee as soon as it is handed to them while driving. The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages, which was subsequently reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Liebeck twenty percent atfault for her injury. The jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which only equated to two days worth of McDonalds’ coffee sales.

Later on, in a post-verdict investigation, it was found that the temperature of the coffee at the local McDonald store where Liebeck was served coffee had a temperature of only 158 degrees at the time of the incident. As a result, the trial court reduced the punitive damages award from $2.7 million to $480,000.

The parties ultimately entered into a settlement, which cannot be revealed, despite the fact that the case was very public.

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