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The Truth Surrounding Stella Liebeck’s Personal Injury “Hot Coffee” Litigation and the Jury’s Punitive Damages Award | Indianapolis Personal Injury Lawyers

McDonald’s hot coffee case spun by tort reform propagandists

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Propaganda is a tool used for the purpose of swaying opinion. Sound bites about the ‘hot coffee’ case against a fast food chain have been crafted to malign and ridicule personal injury attorneys and the American legal justice system for the purpose of achieving local and ultimately national tort reform legislation in America.

Here are the facts surrounding Stella Liebeck’s case against the fast food restaurant for knowingly serving scalding hot coffee, capable of producing third degree burns in less than 7 seconds.

The facts behind the personal injury lawsuit

In 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79 year old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, was driven by her grandson through the drive-thru of a fast food restaurant for a breakfast order. Stella ordered a 49 cent cup of coffee. Since the car was without cup holders, her grandson parked the car so Stella could add cream, and sugar to her coffee. She placed the Styrofoam cup of coffee between her knees and lifted the far side of the lid toward her when the cup collapsed in her lap. She suffered third degree burns on 16% of her body including her abdomen, buttocks, thighs and groin when the coffee was absorbed by the sweat pants she was wearing. She spent eight days in the hospital for skin grafting procedures and an additional two years of medical treatments. She was scalded so badly, there were some doctors that thought she might not make it at all. She never fully recovered from the gruesome injuries.

Injured plaintiff offered to settle for only $20,000

Several attempts at a direct settlement were made by Stella’s family prior to retaining an attorney. One attempt to settle directly with the fast food chain was made early on by Stella’s daughter for the amount of $20,000 to cover Stella’s medical bills of $13,000 and her mother’s lost wages. The fast food chain countered with an offer of $800.00. Future correspondence with the restaurant chain went unanswered.

Plaintiff’s personal injury attorney made a last ditch attempt to settle the claim

Prior to trial, Liebeck’s attorney unsuccessfully offered to settle the case with the fast food chain and to graciously waive his own attorney fees in favor of his client. The day before trial, defense chose not to show up at the scheduled mediation (a last ditch attempt to settle before exercising the court system.) Why? At the time, New Mexico juries had never before found favorably for a plaintiff in any product liability case. The restaurant wanted to go to trial and put the issue to rest for potential future litigants—more than 700 of them, many of which had suffered third degree burns since 1982.

The evidence produced at trial

A typical home brewer serves coffee at a range of 142 to 162. When the coffee is poured into a ceramic cup, the heat dissipates even further. At that range you have up to 25 seconds to remove yourself from the situation before receiving burn injuries. However, at 187 (the temperature at which the fast food restaurant coffee was held),you have only 2-7 seconds to remove yourself from the situation before receiving 3rddegree burns. At trial, the jury learned that defendant’s policy manual required all restaurants hold their coffee between 180-190 degrees—a business decision to optimize taste, reduce waste and marginalize loss. Defendant’s own quality assurance manager testified that their coffee served at 185 in a Styrofoam cup was not fit for human consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat; and further, that the chain had no intention of reducing the holding temperature of its coffee. Defendant further admitted that their customers were unaware that they could suffer third degree burns from their scalding coffee.

Punitive Damage Award

The jury found defendant to be 80% responsible and Liebeck 20% responsible for her injuries. She received a reasonable compensatory award but it was the punitive damage award that stirred the media into a frenzy. Stunned by the chains reckless business decisions, it was a jury of her peers that awarded 2 days of coffee sales to Liebeck, approximately 2.7 million for punitive damages. But, keep in mind that the purpose for punitive damages is to change existing behavior.

A temperature check performed at the same local fast food restaurant where the incident occurred, revealed—post-verdict—that the restaurant had reduced their hold temperature to 158 degrees. Many coffee shops and restaurants have heeded the jury’s admonition and since have reduced their coffee temperatures in kind. But that’s not the end of Stella’s story…

Settlement amount remains a mystery

The trial court subsequently reduced the jury’s punitive damages award to $480,000, 3 times the final compensatory award. And a later settlement agreement between plaintiff and defendant, sealed by the court, adjusted the settlement once again. Few people know or will ever know what amount the plaintiff eventually received. To learn more about this story, you can find the full interview of Stella’s family here.

Personal injury lawyers experienced in product liability and personal injury claims

The jury’s verdict for punitive damages awarded the plaintiff remains a topic of conversation, even today. Just this week  Tru TV’s hit show, Adam Ruins Everything,  exposed the facts behind Stella Liebeck’s “hot coffee” claim and the attacks perpetrated on our legal profession by special interest tort reformists.

Our attorneys have more than eighty-six combined years of legal experience with personal injury, product liability and wrongful death claims. We receive no legal fees or expenses unless we collect damages on your behalf.  If you have been injured by the negligence of another person or entity, Call Charlie Ward today at 317-639-9501 for a free evaluation of your claim. There is no obligation.

Charlie Ward

(317) 639-9501

[email protected]

Ward & Ward Law Firm
728 S Meridian St
Indianapolis, IN 46225