In February of 1992, 79 year-old Stella Liebeck bought a cup of coffee from the drive-thru window of a McDonald’s restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her grandson parked their car, and she placed the styrofoam coffee cup between her knees to add cream and sugar. As Ms. Liebeck tried to remove the lid, the coffee spilled onto her lap and groin. She was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with third degree burns. She spent eight days in hospital, undergoing painful skin grafting procedures, followed by two years of ongoing medical treatment.
Ms. Liebeck sued McDonald’s to recover her medical expenses. She initially asked for about $11,000. McDonald’s refused, and offered her just $800. During the litigation, it was discovered that between 1982 and 1992, McDonald’s had received more than 700 reports of significant burn injuries caused by their coffee, which was served at 180 – 190° F. Coffee served at home is generally 135 – 140° F. In spite of all these complaints, McDonald’s refused to reduce the temperature of its coffee. After hearing all the evidence, a civil jury found that McDonald’s was 80% responsible for Ms. Liebeck’s injuries and awarded $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages (based on two days of McDonald’s coffee revenues). The trial judge reduced the punitive award to $480,000, for a total award of $640,000.
McDonald’s appealed the decision, but settled with Ms. Liebeck before the appeal was heard. The details of the settlement are a closely guarded secret.
Was the Liebeck case a spurious lawsuit? An elderly woman was badly injured by extremely hot coffee served by a restaurant that displayed (in the words of the trial judge) “attitudes of corporate indifference”. The insurance industry has spun Ms. Liebeck’s case as an example of personal injury litigation gone wrong – but perhaps it is an even better example of how the legal system provides justice to injured people in appropriate cases.