Stella Liebeck

Comments Off on Stella Liebeck

The Case of the Too Hot Coffee

Many websites will drone endlessly about the facts surrounding the infamous “Stella” Case and opine as to its merit. On these websites they blame attorneys, the legal system, greed, and anything else they can point their judgmental finger towards.

Let’s take a look at the facts of the case, and if you are one that feels the legal system was abused in this personal injury lawsuit, I’d love to know your opinion. Send it, and if it meets our editorial guidelines, we’ll publish it.

Just The Facts Ma’am

In February 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman ordered a cup of coffee from the drive thru of a local McDonald’s. Liebeck was in the passenger’s seat of her car, with her grandson driving. After receiving the coffee they pulled over so that Ms. Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee and in doing so, she spilled the entire cup of coffee in her lap.

Ms. Liebeck was hospitalized for 8 days recovering from 3rd degree burns over 6% of her body. In this time she underwent skin grafting procedure to repair the damaged skin. Two years of surgery and further treatments followed. Ms. Liebeck asked McDonald’s to pay for her medical bills to the tune of $20,000.00. McDonald’s countered with an offer of $800.00. She hired Product Liability Attorney Reed Morgan who offered to settle the case for $90,000.00. McDonald’s again refused

The Case Goes To Court

Unable to reach an agreement, the case went to went to court. During the proceedings it was determined that McDonald’s required franchises to serve coffee at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit. It was also determined that liquid making contact with the skin at that temperature will cause 3rd burns in less than 15 seconds. Documents obtained from McDonald’s showed Stella was not the first person burned by their coffee. In fact, the company had received over 700 reports of people burned by the beverage. McDonald’s had settled these cases all told for more than $500,000.00.

During the testimony it was conceded by McDonald’s Quality Control Manager Chris Appleton that if the coffee was consumed at the temperature at which it was served, it would cause severe burns to the mouth and throat.

The Verdict

The 10 day trial was over on August 17th, when the jury reached their verdict. They found McDonald’s was 80% responsible for the accident and the warning in place at the time was insufficient to prevent injury to consumers. They awarded Liebeck $200,000.00 in compensation, and 2.7 million in punitive damages, about 2 days of coffee revenue for McDonald’s. The judge reduced the amount to $640,000.00 in total. The decision was appealed by both Liebeck and McDonald’s who then settled out of court for undisclosed amount of money less than $600,000.00

Even the most reasonable person would concede that a consumer being served a beverage in a restaurant that would do considerable harm if consumed must be warned of the danger. In fact, the day after the trial was over, McDonald’s ordered its stores to lower the temperature of coffee served to 150 degrees. Whether this was done out of social conscious and to protect the consumer, or to keep themselves out of court is uncertain. What is certain is that Stella Liebeck’s case has at least played a part in keeping other consumers safe from the same injury she received.

Product Liability lawsuits and failure to warn cases do more than punish the producer of dangerous products, they protect the consumer from suffering
the same fate as others before them. If you have been injured using a product, contact an experienced Product Liability Attorney who will fight for your rights.