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The Truth About the McDonald's Spilled Coffee Case

There has been a lot of hype about the McDonald's scalding coffee case. There's been so much hype that we're confident you've heard about this personal injury case years before this post. McGraw & Strickland is not in favor of frivolous cases or outlandish results; however, as personal injury attorneys and trial lawyers we believe it is important to hold individuals and corporations accountable for their actions. That is what the jury in the McDonald's case tried to do by accessing punitive damages against McDonald's because it knew that its coffee was hot enough to burn skin. How did it know? During the discovery phase of the jury trial, McDonald's produced documents showing that more than 700 people between 1982 and 1992 had filed claims or lawsuit because they had been burned by its coffee. Some claims involved third degree burns substantially similar to the facts of this case.

McDonald's said that it served its coffee at between 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain optimum taste. Liquids at that temperature can cause third-degree burns in 2-7 seconds. Such burns require skin grafting, debridement and whirlpool treatments to heal, and the resulting scars are typically permanent. Other establishments sell coffee at substantially lower temperatures than McDonald's, and coffee served at home is generally 135 to 140 degrees.

McDonald's coffee was not only hot, it was scalding hot and could cause almost instantaneous destruction of skin, flesh and muscle. The documents, produced by McDonald's, showed that the fast food giant knew about the unnecessary danger its scalding coffee posed to its customers. This was the reason the jury fined McDonald's $2.7 million in punitive damages, which is the amount of money McDonald's made in 2 days selling its coffee.

Here are more facts of the case:

Stella Liebeck, age 79, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was in the passenger seat of her grandson's car when she was severely burned by McDonald's coffee in February 1992. Ms. Liebeck ordered coffee that was served in a styrofoam cup at the drive-through window at an Albuquerque-based McDonald's. Her grandson then pulled his car into the McDonald's parking lot so his grandmother, Ms. Liebeck, could add cream and sugar to her coffee. (Critics of civil justice, who have used this case as a soap box for tort reform, often erroneously allege that Liebeck was driving the car or that the vehicle was in motion when she spilled the coffee; neither is true.) Ms. Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup. As she removed the lid, the entire cup spilled into her lap.

Ms. Liebeck's sweatpants absorbed the scalding coffee and held it next to her skin. She was rushed to the emergency room. A vascular surgeon determined that Ms. Liebeck suffered third degree burns. Third degree burns are the most serious burns involving all layers of the skin and cause permanent tissue damage. Fat, muscle and even bone may be affected. Ms. Liebeck suffered third degree burns over more than 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. She was hospitalized for eight days, and she underwent two years of skin grafting, debridement treatments and rehabilitation. Before turning to an attorney, Ms. Liebeck asked McDonald's to pay her medical costs of $20,000, but they refused. Her attorneys then sought to settle the case with McDonald's twice before the case went to a jury trial.

During the jury trial, witnesses for McDonald's admitted in court that consumers are unaware of the extent of the risk of serious burns from spilled coffee served at McDonald's required temperature, admitted that it did not warn customers of this risk, could offer no explanation as to why it did not, and testified that it did not intend to turn down the heat even though it admitted that its coffee is "not fit for consumption" when sold because it is too hot.

The jury, consisting of men and women from the Albuquerque community, awarded Ms. Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages, but reduced her award by 20 percent to $160,000 because they found her 20 percent at fault. The jury then accessed $2.7 million in punitive damages against McDonald's because of its cavalier attitude to its customers based on food giant's prior knowledge of the risk of its scalding coffee to its customers. The trial judge later reduced the amount of punitive damages to $480,000.

The attorneys at McGraw & Strickland believe that a jury made of up members of our community should be the ultimate decision-makers in these situations. But because of the misconceptions surrounding this case and others, big business used the distorted facts to argue for "tort reform" and State legislatures have imposed caps on damages, taking this factual determination out of the province of the jury.

The personal injury attorneys at McGraw & Strickland believe strongly in an individual's right to a jury trial. As trial lawyers, we advocate for the rights of each of our clients, giving them a voice against big corporations. Call us at (575) 323-1529.

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Las Cruces, NM 88005

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