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McLies: A Look Back on the McDonald’s Coffee Case 30 Years Later

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the infamous McDonald’s Coffee Case. Most adult Americans remember the storyline that a jury awarded millions of dollars to an old lady because she spilled hot coffee on herself that she bought at a McDonald’s. The narrative became a punch line on Seinfeld, 60 Minutes, the Simpsons, and late-night talk shows for how to get rich quick by filing meritless lawsuits for trivial or fake injuries with the assistance of unscrupulous plaintiff’s lawyers.

What most people believe they “know” about the case is erroneous and is the fruit of a highly orchestrated, well-funded political campaign to shape public opinion rather than to accurately report historical events. Most people think that the plaintiff in that case spilled coffee on herself while driving, sustained minor injuries, and then received millions of dollars from an excessive jury award. None of those suppositions are true, other than that most believe them.

The injured person in the McDonald’s Coffee Case was Stella Liebeck. In February 1992, she was 79 years old and in good health, when she and her nephew chose to stop for refreshments at a McDonald’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Ms. Liebeck was a passenger in her nephew’s car. They passed through a drive-thru window where she bought a cup of McDonald’s coffee. Her nephew then parked the car in the restaurant lot. While the car was parked, Ms. Liebeck placed the coffee cup between her knees and attempted to take the lid off so that she could add cream and sugar. When the lid came off, coffee that was steeped to the brim of the cup spilled on her lap. This was no ordinary cup of coffee. The coffee had been superheated by that McDonald’s franchise, in compliance with company instructions to do so. She suffered third-degree burns on her genitalia, thighs, and buttocks, injuries which required several days of hospitalization and multiple skin grafts.

While Ms. Liebeck’s injuries were severe, her expectations for recompense from McDonald’s were modest. She hired an attorney, Ken Wagner, to ask McDonald’s to pay her burn-related medical bills, which were ongoing and at that time totaled $10,000. He did so. In response, McDonald’s declined to pay any more than $800 of her medical bills.

Ms. Liebeck then filed suit against McDonald’s in a Federal District Court in Albuquerque. She alleged that McDonald’s was grossly negligent for selling coffee that was superheated to the point of being unreasonably dangerous and she tried her case to a jury. Through formal discovery in the case, her lawyers learned that during a nine-year period leading up to the day upon which Ms. Liebeck was scalded, McDonald’s had internally documented more than 700 burn cases that were reported to the company as having been caused by McDonald’s coffee.

The jury was rightly offended that McDonald’s knew of several hundred McDonald’s coffee burns prior to the incident involving Ms. Liebeck and did nothing to lower the holding temperature of the coffee. The jury rendered a unanimous verdict in favor of Ms. Liebeck and awarded her $160,000 in compensatory damages. They also assessed McDonald’s $2.7M in punitive damages, which was the company’s revenue from two days of coffee sales.

The trial judge then entered a judgment in Ms. Liebeck’s favor but reduced the punitive damage award from $2.7M to $480,000. McDonald’s later settled the case with Ms. Liebeck for an undisclosed amount and lowered the holding temperature of its coffee by 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

Nonetheless, political opportunists skillfully cast Ms. Liebeck’s case as the poster child for the deaths of common sense and moral rectitude in American society. Mainstream press helped them do so, printing stories with punchy headlines that depicted the verdict as something extreme and irrational, though it was neither. Tort reform advocates saw this sensationalized news coverage as an opportunity that they could exploit to reshape the civil justice system in their favor, and then did.

With the McDonald’s Coffee Case serving as a rallying cry for “pro-business” lobbyists, politicians and PACs demanding “reform” of the civil justice system, laws were passed in Congress and by legislatures in states across America immunizing whole industries from civil liability and placing strict damage caps on a patient’s pain and suffering caused by medical malpractice.

All that change. All based on a lie. As Mark Twain purportedly observed, “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.” It did.

The post McLies: A Look Back on the McDonald’s Coffee Case 30 Years Later appeared first on Attorney at Law Magazine.

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