Skip to Main Content

What is Tort Reform and how bad was the McDonald’s Case?

”Tort Reform” is the movement to limit the amount of money the injured can receive in a lawsuit. It is based on a perception that litigation is out of control. The “McDonald’s Coffee Case” is the most cited example of how out of control things supposedly are.

I have several Million dollar awards and in every one, I proved my case to the insurance company or jurors. There have been some crazy verdicts, but I defer to those juries. They saw it and weighed the evidence.

How many of you have heard of the McDonald’s Hot Coffee case? You know the one- where a woman spilled hot coffee on herself and won a “gazillion dollars” from a jury? Sometimes the facts can be misconstrued. With so much negative publicity about this verdict, let’s look at the case from the woman’s side.

I recently had a trial, where the Defense attorney described the verdict as renegade and frivolous, he challenged the jury to have the courage to be reasonable and acted as if this case was some jackpot justice, and a trivial curiosity at that. it wasn’t.

So, I am going to tell you “the rest of the story,” some facts of the case that you may not have known, some facts that may give you pause to re-think your opinion about the verdict. Much more can be learned in the special, “Hot Coffee,” a documentary airing on HBO on Demand and on Netflix. It’s worth watching,

The woman was 79-year old Stella Liebeck who lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She earned $5000 a year as a sales clerk. One February morning in 1992, Stella and her grandson drove through a McDonald’s drive-in to buy food and coffee. She sat in the front passenger bucket seat of her son’s Ford Probe car and she was wearing sweat pants. The car didn’t have a cup holder, so he put the drink in her lap to add sugar and cream.

She had trouble removing the lid. She placed the styrofoam cup in between her legs, thus freeing up both hands to remove that lid. The coffee cup tipped over, spilling hot coffee over Stella’s legs, groin, and buttocks.

Her injuries were very serious. She suffered the most severe kind of burns – 3rd degree burns over 6% percent of her 79-year old body. A third degree burn is when all the layers of the skin are burned completely through, called a “full thickness burn.” She went through skin grafts where skin was shaved from one part of her body to place it on the burned areas. She was in severe pain.

Two weeks later Stella and her family wrote McDonald’s to tell then about the coffee spill, and her burns. She wanted to protect others and though they should help with her exorbitant medical bills. They ignored her and turned a deaf ear.

They ultimately offered her $800, despite pain, surgeries, scarring and well over $10,000 in medical bills. $800?

How hot is too hot? McDonald’s required its restaurants to brew its coffee at 195 to 205 degrees and then keep it for sale to customers at 180 and 190 degrees. By comparison, 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design says, “Bathtub shower spray units shall deliver water that is 120 degrees F (49 degrees C) maximum.” The human pain threshold for hot water is 110 F, and you would pull away (assuming you have sensation) from water that hot. A Harvard Medical School study of water temperature on adult skin shows that water of 120 F will cause a 2nd degree burn in eight minutes; raise the temp to 124 F, and it will cause a 2nd degree burn in two minutes; at 140 F it will cause a 3rd degree burn in five seconds — and instantly at 160 F!

McDonald’s argued: everyone knows coffee is supposed to be served hot, so that could not have been a surprise to Stella. Our cups even have the warning “hot” printed on them. Everyone admitted hot coffee is unsafe to drink at 180 to 190 degrees, and it will cause burns to the throat if swallowed within the first few minutes. It can even cause severe burns at 130 degrees.

More than 700 people reported burns from drinking or spilling McDonald’s coffee over the years, and despite the large number of burn complaints, the company continued to serve it at least 180 degrees. The response- “we are glad it wasn’t more.”

Because Stella was wearing sweat pants the hot coffee soaked through them and it took her about 30 seconds before she could pull them away from her body. Too late to avoid the serious 3rd degree burns.

The company further argued that it had sold more than 10 BILLION cups of coffee over the years and yet received very few complaints. It admitted it had strengthened and tightened its styrofoam coffee cups and stamped a warning on them because of some of the burns. McDonald’s called the 700 burns “statistically trivial.” A witness for the plaintiff called that remark “corporate callousness.”

McDonalds said is sold one BILLION cups of coffee each year nationwide. That was nearly 2-and-a-half million cups a day. After hearing all the evidence, the jury found that McDonalds was 80% at fault and Stella was 20% at fault. It awarded Stella Stella $160,000 to compensate her for her injuries, and also gave her $2.7 million in punitive damages. Punitive damages are not allowed in most states in cases lie this.

The trial judge reduced the entire judgement to $450,000. McDonalds did not appeal and the matter was settled confidentially.

Was it Stella’s fault for trying to add sugar and cream while sitting in the car? Or was it McDonald’s fault for selling coffee so much hotter than any other place? You be the juror.

As a big corporation, with a lot of money, you have two potential solutions: (i) try to influence all potential jurors through multi-million dollar advertising and PR campaigns; and (ii) pour lots of money into judicial elections – only supporting candidates that are pro-big business and anti-consumer.

Meanwhile, the big corporation offers Plaintiffs $800, like they did in this case. In my recent case, we got a total verdict of $1.1 Million. A week before trial, I was insultingly offered $75,000 despite medical bills of over $260,000, including 3 past surgeries and 2 more surgeries in her future. Is that okay with you? What we need is justice reform.