When Liebeck vs. McDonald’s Restaurants, was filed in 1992, it was branded by the media as a prime example of the excess and frivolity of tort law, and used as a primary argument for tort reform. The general story (that spread like wildfire) was that a woman, while driving, received burns from hot coffee that she spilled on her lap and decided to sue McDonald’s. But was the lawsuit unjustified?
The Facts:The little-known facts tell a different story. Stella Liebeck, 79 at the time, was actually a passenger in the car her son was driving. After making purchases at the McDonald’s drive-thru, he pulled into a parking space so Stella could safely add cream and sugar to her coffee. As Stella removed the lid, the entire cup of coffee spilled on her lap, resulting in severe third degree burns. Stella was in the hospital for eight days while receiving skin grafts and recovering from the burns. She would require treatment for the next two years.
The Jury Sided With StellaThe jury originally determined that McDonald’s was 80% liable, and had engaged in willful, reckless, malicious or wanton conduct because:
- McDonald’s policy required that the coffee to be served at a temperature that would cause 3rd degree burns in less than three seconds.
- At the time, McDonald’s was aware that the hot coffee had severely burned more than 700 people in the 10 years preceding this lawsuit; in fact, most had been paid off by out-of-court settlements.
- McDonald’s acknowledged that their customers were unaware of the danger presented by the hot drinks, and that they had not made an effort to warn them.