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What Hot Coffee Can Teach Us About the Myth of Frivolous Lawsuits

Posted On August 5, 2016 In Personal Injury

When people are injured by negligent or reckless companies, they deserve justice.Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants is frequently cited as a textbook example of a frivolous lawsuit. The case was even the subject of a major documentary, appropriately called Hot Coffee. Although this case is compared with frivolous lawsuits, that is only because the public heard McDonald’s side of the story. The truth of the matter is that frivolous lawsuits are usually thrown out of court by judges, long before they make it to a jury trial.

In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck was burned by an excessively hot cup of McDonald’s coffee. At the time of the incident, Liebeck was a passenger in a vehicle parked in the McDonald’s parking lot. While removing the lid on her coffee to add cream and sugar, Liebeck spilled the beverage over her thighs. This was not ‘ordinary’ hot coffee: it was 190 degrees Fahrenheit (water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit). Liebeck suffered severe third-degree burns on her thighs and was hospitalized for eight days. The burns caused by the coffee were so severe that she needed skin grafts!

After the incident, Liebeck offered to settle with McDonald’s for $90,000. Instead of accepting the settlement, McDonald’s offered Liebeck $800 – nowhere near enough to cover the cost of her injuries. Additional attempts to settle with McDonald’s failed, and the case went to trial.

Why The McDonald’s Coffee Case Was Not a Frivolous Lawsuit

Liebeck was not the first person to be injured by McDonald’s hot coffee. McDonald’s had received 700 reports of customers being burned. It was also not the first time McDonald’s settled with customers who had received burn injuries (some of which were third-degree burns). Evidence during the trial discovered McDonald’s had previously spent $500,000 settling with customers burned by its coffee.

Additional evidence showed that McDonald’s had kept its coffee dangerously hot (180 to 190 degrees) despite knowing of prior cases involving injuries. There were even prior reports that children and infants had been badly burned by the coffee. McDonald’s had a reason for keeping the coffee so hot: the hotter the coffee, the longer it took to drink, which meant fewer refills, which meant McDonald’s saved money–at the expense of its customers’ safety.

Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants was not a frivolous lawsuit as reported by the mainstream media. A 79-year-old grandmother, plus many others, were severely injured by a product that McDonald’s knew was dangerous. Liebeck was awarded $2.9 million in damages by a jury, but this amount was later reduced by the court to $640,000.

After the trial concluded, the judge ordered both parties to participate in a post-verdict settlement conference. This resulted in a settlement between Liebeck and McDonald’s that was less than $600,000 (the amount still remains undisclosed today). While McDonald’s was free to discuss the case openly with the media, Liebeck was forbidden from talking about the settlement. This meant McDonald’s could spin the story any way it wished.

Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants suggests that some companies put profits before customers. In 1992, McDonald’s was worth billions of dollars, yet it only offered Liebeck $800 despite the severity of her injuries.

Why is it important to reject the myth of frivolous lawsuits? While it is important for people injured by dangerous products to receive money needed to pay for medical treatments and lost income, it is also essential to hold negligent or reckless companies accountable for their actions. Filing lawsuits can sometimes prevent a business or other companies within the same industry from harming additional people.

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