Media version:


79-year old Stella Liebeck and her grandson stopped by a McDonald's drive-through. Liebeck bought a cup of coffee, served in a styrofoam cup. She was sitting in the back seat of the car. When they had pulled out of the driveway, the grandson stopped for a moment so Liebeck could open the lid and put sugar and cream in her coffee (note: I've read several newspaper articles claiming that she was trying to open the cup while driving). The lid was stuck, so she tried to hold the cup with her knees while pulling the lid open with both her hands (which is very understandable, seeing as she's a weak elderly woman). As she removed the lid, the contents of the cup were spilled in her lap.

She was wearing a pair of sweatpants, which absorbed the coffee, and held it next to her skin.

Now, here's the kicker: THE COFFEE WAS NOT HOT.


The coffee was around 85° C (185° F). Normal household coffee is about 60° C (140° F).

The coffee gave her third-degree burns over 6% of her body - her inner thighs, groin and buttocks. She had to be hospitalized for over a week, and had to undergo skin grafting. She had to pay 11 000 dollars for the treatment. And she's still crippled.

Liebeck sought to settle her claim for $20 000. McDonald's refused. They actually countered with an offer of 800 bucks.

During discovery, more than 700 claims from other people burned by McDonald's scalding coffee were produced. Many of them had stories similar to that of Stella Liebeck's. Before this was made known, McDonald's representatives lied to the court and jury about the existence of other claims. The claims documented that McDonald's were fully aware of the problem and its extent. McDonald's Quality Assurancy Manager also admitted during discovery that their POLICY was to hold their coffee at about 85° C in the pot (give or take a few degrees). This was based on a consultant's advice - he said that it'd maintain optimum taste longer after being taken out of the pot. Any coffee served directly from the pot WOULD in most cases cause burns to mouth and throat, and they knew it. The manager also testified that there is a burn hazard with any food/drink served at above 60° C (140° F), and that McDonald's coffee WAS NOT at all FIT FOR CONSUMPTION. He also testified that McDonald's had no intention to lower their holding temperature.

Other testimony showed that liquids at 85° would cause a full thickness burn to human skin in 2-7 seconds.

The jury awarded Liebeck 200 000 dollars, which was then reduced to 160 000 - the jury found Liebeck 20% at fault in the spill. The jury also awarded Liebeck $2,7 million in punitive damages. This sounds like a lot of money, but keep in mind that McDonald's makes 1,3 million dollars daily on coffee ONLY.

The trial court reduced the punitive award to $480,000 - or three times compensatory damages - even though the judge called McDonalds' conduct reckless, callous and willful.

Now, this is what really gets to me. The media has constantly said that "This is a sign of how bad things are in the US today blah blah blah people get awarded money for not knowing that you shouldn't spill coffee in your lap blah blah blah lawyers are morons blah blah blah only the newbie journalists check their facts first".

The thing that's REALLY a sign of how bad things are today is the fact that the media can not only lie to the general public, but also keep the truth quiet so effectively that EVEN THOUGH THE INFORMATION HAS BEEN READILY AVAILIBLE FOR YEARS, your average John Doe will still think that it was all a clumsy lady taking advantage of a broken system.


Update 9/22 2001:
aiken: I don't think you understand. Let's say Procter & Gamble decide that "Hey, if we put hydrochloric acid in our shampoo, then it'll clean better!" So they do it. And then someone accidentally gets shampoo in his eyes while in the shower and goes blind. Would you really say that it's HIS fault - "He should suit himself for not knowing that you shouldn't get shampoo in your eyes". I've spilled coffee on my knee. I've gotten shampoo in my eyes. When I spilled coffee I was damn glad that some asshole didn't make my coffee so hot that I became CRIPPLED. Yes, CRIPPLED. That's THIRD DEGREE BURNS we're talking about.