Just over 20 years ago, a New Mexico jury awarded a 79-year-old woman nearly $3 million in damages resulting from a spilled cup of coffee. This personal injury case became a rallying cry for pundits all over the country; Texas adopted extensive tort reforms in 2001, partially in response to this case. But what really happened? Did this victim obtain justice, or just a bloated monetary verdict?
Stella Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants began in a drive-thru at an Albuquerque restaurant. Although the media widely reported some of the facts, namely that the woman spilled a cup of hot coffee in her lap, other vital facts did not receive nearly as much attention.
Some of the victim’s damages were not the restaurant’s fault. There was a warning label on the coffee cup, and the woman happened to be wearing cotton pants that absorbed the hot liquid and held it against her skin.
But there are very good reasons why a jury later held McDonald’s 80 percent responsible for the victim’s injuries. According to evidence presented at trial, the restaurant served coffee at temperatures that varied between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit, despite the fact that such a high temperature causes serious third-degree burns in as little as two seconds. In fact, documents obtained during discovery proved that McDonald’s had received over 700 complaints about coffee burns over the preceding ten years. Furthermore, the woman’s attorney showed that lowering the temperature to 160 degrees – which was more in line with industry standards – would give potential victims an additional 18 seconds to remove the spilt coffee before the burns set in.
Not only that, the woman’s injuries went far beyond mere inconvenience. She suffered third degree burns to her legs, which required painful skin grafts to repair. The woman offered to settle for an amount that barely exceeded her medical expenses, but the restaurant refused her proposal.
The jury eventually awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages, an amount that seems enormous but actually represented only two days’ worth of coffee sales for the fast-food giant. Although the $2.7 million figure was widely reported, the judge reduced the amount to $480,000, and the parties reached an out-of-court settlement that, reportedly, was even lower than that.
The Liebeck case is an example of the results attorneys can accomplish through hard work and a firm belief in justice for their clients. For a free consultation with an experienced New Braunfels personal injury attorney, contact our office.