Hot Coffee: The Actual Facts of the McDonald's Case (08/23/13)

Posted on 08/23/2013

During our last trial, we had a potential juror cite the "McDonald's coffee case" (i.e., Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants) as an example of a frivolous tort lawsuit. "Hot Coffee" is a documentary that discusses the actual facts of the case. Listed below is a short synopsis of the case and film (see for the original content):


Stella Liebeck, 79-years-old, was sitting in the passenger seat of her grandson's car having purchased a cup of McDonald's coffee. After the car stopped, she tried to hold the cup securely between her knees while removing the lid. However, the cup tipped over, pouring scalding hot coffee onto her lap. She received third-degree burns over 16 percent of her body, necessitating hospitalization for eight days, whirlpool treatment for debridement of her wounds, skin grafting, scarring, and disability for more than two years.

Despite these extensive injuries, she offered to settle with McDonald's for $20,000. However, McDonald's refused to settle for this small amount and, in fact, never offered more than $800.  The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages - reduced to $160,000 because the jury found her 20 percent at fault - and $2.7 million in punitive damages for McDonald's callous conduct. (To put this in perspective, McDonald's revenue from coffee sales alone was in excess of $1.3 million a day.) The trial judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, but did state that McDonald's had engaged in "willful, wanton, and reckless" behavior. Mrs. Liebeck and McDonald's eventually settled for a confidential amount. The jury heard the following evidence in the case:

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