Justinian C. Lane, Esq.
Let Justice Be Done, Though the Heavens May Fall
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Justinian Lane's Blog

Justinian's Blog

More About McDonalds

It turns out that the most popular way people find this site is searching for something about Stella Liebeck and her McDonald's coffee case. Here is the last article I wrote about Stella. Since then, I've written a little more about her case for a newsletter I'm putting together for Students Against Tort reform. What follows is the article from the newsletter:

The poster-child of tort reformers is the famed “McDonald’s Coffee Case” - the case where a woman obtained a multimillion-dollar jury verdict for spilling hot coffee on herself. Most people think that a careless woman spilled some hot coffee on herself while driving, received minor burns, and then filed a lawsuit. That’s not what happened. Here's what did happen:

Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old grandmother, was the passenger in her grandson’s vehicle and ordered a cup of McDonald’s coffee. McDonald’s served the coffee at approximately 190 degrees. McDonald’s admitted coffee at that temperature is “unfit for human consumption”; 190 degree liquid causes third-degree burns within 2 to 7 seconds of contact with skin.

Stella spilled the coffee on the crotch of her cotton jogging pants, and the coffee immediately soaked through her pants and caused third-degree burns to her legs, thighs, and genitals. The burns were so severe she needed skin grafts to heal the damage. It took many months for her to recover from the severe burns.

Stella offered to settle the case with McDonald’s if they would just pay her medical bills, which were into the many thousands of dollars. McDonalds refused, and Stella filed a lawsuit. During the trial, it was discovered that in the ten years prior to Stella’s accident, over 700 men, women, and children had been burned by the unsafe McDonald’s coffee.

For years, McDonald’s sold coffee that was “unfit for human consumption”, and made $1.3 million dollars a day in profit doing so. Information such as this wasn’t really reported by the media. What was reported was the $2.6 million dollar jury verdict.

The jury arrived at that figure by calculating the profit of two-days worth of coffee sales, and “fining” McDonald’s that amount to get their attention and make them fix the problem.

It worked. The day after the verdict, McDonald’s lowered the coffee temperature to a safe-but-hot 158 degrees. This is still hot enough to cause third-degree burns, but it takes closer to sixty seconds worth of exposure to do so.

Many believe that $2.6 million dollars was too much money. The judge in the case did, and he reduced the verdict to less than $500,000. Stella actually settled with McDonald’s for even less money. It took a multimillion dollar jury verdict to get McDonald’s to fix a dangerous problem they knew about for ten years; doesn’t that prove the system works?