The Most Famous Law Suit, The Mcdonalds Coffee Case. Coffee & The Law.

Title: Coffee and the law

Subtitle: Famous coffee case. Famous Mcdonalds coffee case. Frivolous law suits.

I thought I would bring my love and prior knowledge of the Law and my love for coffee together. Welcome to Coffee & the Law where I will talk about lawsuits that have arisen from coffee related incidents.  This post specifically will be based on the case of Leibeck vs Mcdonalds Restaurants 1995.

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H O T  C O F F E E –  L E I B E C K  V S  M C D O N A L D S 

  • An American Product Liability Lawsuit and the need for Tort Reform in the US.

The Facts:

Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car when she was severely burned by McDonalds’ coffee on February 27, 1992. Liebeck, 79 at the time of the case, ordered coffee that was served in a styrofoam cup at the drivethrough window of a local McDonalds.

Stella Leibeck.
Leibeck’s grandson had pulled over and stopped the car after they had received the order so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup. As she removed the lid, the entire contents of the cup spilled into her lap.

The sweatpants Liebeck was wearing absorbed the coffee. The coffee had somewhat absorbed into the material which was held tightly to her skin.  A vascular surgeon determined that Liebeck suffered third-degree burns  over 16 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, genitals and groin areas. She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting. Liebeck, who also underwent debridement treatments. The treatment then went on for a further two years after the incident happened. She requested that her claim be settled for $20,000 which would cover her $11,000 medical bills and provide for ongoing care and loss of earnings. McDonalds refused. They actually stated they would settle for $800 because it was her own fault ( we will cover this point more later).

During the trial process, McDonalds produced documents showing more than 700 claims by people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. ( See recent English case of Bogle vs Mcdonalds Restaurants 2002).Some claims involved third-degree burns substantially similar to Liebecks. If you’re wondering why they would show this kind of information that seems detrimental to them, I will explain. They showed these documents as a counter argument to the prosecution. They were showing that such a small proportion of incidents had occurred. Statistically it was something like 1 in 24 million cups sold resulted in someone being burned to some extent. Therefore, the incidents were virtually non existent. However, the documents did show that McDonalds’ knew about the extent and nature of this hazard.

Liebeck’s attorneys argued that McDonalds  been grossly negligent in selling Liebeck a “defectively manufactured” product. They were saying that due to the overheating ( coffee temperature was between 180–190 °F (82–88 °C) of the product it was actually defective and more likely to cause serious injury than coffee served at any other establishment.

Just to put it out there, I have been trained by a Barista who advised that coffee or milk heated over 65 Degrees C is too hot. Anything over that actually burns the ingredients and now imagine it to be TWENTY – THIRTY DEGREES hotter than that and the damage it can do to human skin.

The whole process ran on for a long time. Mediation was sought where the mediator advised McDonald’s to settle for $225,000. McDonalds again refused and the case went to trial before a jury.stella 8

The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages ( this is an amount of money to compensate her for injuries). However, the jury made Leibeck accountable for spilling the coffee herself which amounted to a 20% reduction in  damages. This left her here, with $160,o00.

She was also awarded punitive damages( this is an amount of money that is awarded to punish the other side) against McDonald’s, which the jury amounted to $2.7 million. (That number equated to about two days’ worth of McDonald’s coffee revenues.) The jury were so sickened by her injuries which lead them to reach such a high value of damages. We have to remember that this case was over 20 years ago. That is probably the equivalent to nearly double that today!

Both parties appealed the trial judge’s reduced figure for damages, and the two parties eventually reached an undisclosed out-of-court settlement before the appeals were heard.  We still don’t know to this day how much Leibeck received. I can confirm that she did not receive anywhere near a million dollars (In many articles or podcasts it is noted that she received over a million dollars when in face, she did not).

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T H E  M E D I A &  T H E C A S E

You don’t have to be interested in the law or know anything about it to understand the impact the media has on certain cases. For example, you can probably think of a dozen cases that you have seen on the news, in papers or online?  I’m sure that you instantly form an opinion. Are you for the defence or the prosecution? Let me jog your memory and see if any of these names from recent court cases or crimes spark emotions inside of you. Oscar Pistorius, Julian Assange, Abu Hamza, Lindsey Lohan, OJ Simpson, Dr Conrad Murray, Amanda Knox, John Venables. We all have our opinions on various cases based on what we have heard in the media or seen on the news right?

Although in Britain the trials are not broadcast on the television the media is usually all over each case/crime. In this case, we focus on the CIVIL side of the law and not the CRIMINAL and the case is based in the US so principles of law do change from what we expect here in UK. Anyway, that for the purpose of this is irrelevant.

What I’m trying to get at is that during this case the public had made up their mind as to how they viewed it. The majority of the public branded Mrs Leibeck ‘greedy’ and as someone who would do anything to ‘get money’. The case was seen as a joke – as a woman who spilled coffee on herself in a bid to get money. It was seen as another money-grabbing idiot wasting the judicial system’s time and throwing money down the drain.

How did they get these opinions? The media of course.  The public weren’t shown the horrific images of the burns. The public were not told the actual facts. The public were lead to believe that Leibeck was driving whilst she spilled coffee everywhere – something that on the balance of probabilities is bound to happen right? She was actually advised by the judge to settle for LESS in order to prevent her being a public joke – Seriously. She was the product of a gag order by the courts and therefore could not speak out about had actually happened to her. This is vitally important to note.
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I need to note that the the case was brought in August 1994. The court system was limiting in that there were too many people bringing tort cases ( for those of you who are not familiar with the word tort it basically relates to the suing of people or companies – among other things). Citizens abilities were limited – there were simply too many ‘jackpot justice’ cases going through the courts – known as frivolous cases. Frivolous cases are cases that are brought by a claimant that have little or no chance of winning. It was reported that lawyers were getting greedy and taking cases because they knew they were going to get paid at the end of it regardless of whether the case had any legal merit.

She was essentially a poster child for everything that was wrong with the legal system. Please take this statement as you wish because there are definitely two ways of looking at it.

So, the case was branded frivolous by the media and Leibeck was not publicly supported. However a few years later an ex lawyer and a pro-US tort reformer ( Susan Saladoff) took her hand to filming and created a movie based on the case and addressing the need for reform in the US judicial system.stella 2

H O T  C O F F E E – T H E M O V I E

She noted whilst making the movie that the US is being distorted by huge public relations campaigns funded by large corporations to limit peoples access to the court system. The Mcdonald’s case was used as an example because the public didn’t actually know what case was REALLY about. Subsequently, the public AFFECTED the outcome ( she settled for less as to not be seen as a joke). However, during the making of this movie members of the public were randomly selected and asked what they thought of the case. Of course the response was the same as I noted before – that she was greedy etc. They were then shown pictures of her injuries and you can literally see their facial expressions change – they  had no idea. The injuries were so bad that people couldn’t fathom going through what she did. The media had slaughtered her character as one these people who wanted to extort big companies for money which was not at all the case. I want to note that this movie Hot Coffee was the single piece of evidence that disparaged the media. It proved that the civil justice system and the way the media portrays these ‘frivolous’ cases is inaccurate and damaging. Essentially this movie saved her.

Anyway, I wanted to write something that I enjoy writing and researching something with depth for this blog. I know my blog is about coffee ( and so is this case – partly) so I thank you if you’ve reached this point and read it all. 

Here are some websites and published news and blog articles relating to the case:

Feel free to add any comments or any questions you may have:


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