Even without knowing about the ins and outs of the case of Stella Liebeck, most people would be familiar with the pop culture reference of a scalding hot cup of McDonald’s coffee. You’ve probably seen references to the case if you’ve watched any comedy television from the 90s or 2000s – Futurama, the Simpsons, Seinfeld, talk show hosts all got in on the joke which sadly Stella was the butt of.
The case was launched in 1992 after the then-79 year old woman spilled hot coffee in her lap while a passenger in a stationary vehicle. As she took the lid off the cup, the coffee spilled and burned her so badly she required 8 days in hospital and skin grafts. Her family asked McDonald’s for assistance, and asked that they reduce the temperature at which they served coffee.
A decade of litigation led to a pay-out for Liebeck, but it came at a cost.
Though she was successful in her case against McDonald’s – and getting the company to lower the temperature at which its coffee was served – the cost of the case took its toll on Stella and her family.
The media turned the story on its head, usually misquoting the facts of the case – she was driving the car, she was money-grubbing – leading to widespread vilification of Liebeck and the case.
The jokes usually rested on the fact that it’s coffee, it’s hot – you’re an idiot if it burns you and even more so if you’re seeking medical costs or damages for something that could have been avoided.
In fact, Liebeck offered to settle the case for $20,000 to cover medical expenses and lost income and when McDonald’s didn’t offer more than $800 the case was run to court.
Discovery showed that hers was one of 700 cases between 1982 and 1992, with some claiming burns as substantial as Liebeck’s, showing the company was aware of the nature and extent of the hazard of the temperature of its coffee.
One of the most important outcomes of the case was that McDonald’s lowered the temperature its coffee was served at. Prior to the case, its policy was to serve the coffee between 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain optimal flavour. The recommendation that policy was based on had not taken into account the safety ramifications of that temperature which could cause third degree burns within 15 seconds.
McDonald’s argued that its customers know coffee is hot and want it served that way – but did admit that customers were unaware of the risk of third degree burns coffee served that hot and that it had conducted research that showed customers intend to consume the coffee immediately while driving.
They say never let the facts get in the way of a good story but it so good it meant an entire country could have overlooked the facts of the case?
It was the jury’s punitive damages award that made headlines – because McDonald’s was unwilling to change its policy despite hundreds of instances of injury, the jury awarded Liebeck the equivalent of two days worth of revenue from coffee sales from the claim. Liebeck was found to be partially at fault though so her compensation was reduced accordingly. That award was further reduced by more than 80 per cent by the judge and eventually Liebeck and McDonald’s entered into a confidential agreement.
Here are a few videos giving a rundown of the case: