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The Myth of the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Trial: 5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know

ABC News referred to her case as “the poster child of excessive lawsuits.” Most of us have heard this story, but how many of us know what really happened? Here, we share five things that shed light on what really happened in the McDonald’s Hot Coffee case which might cause you to wonder why it received so much attention.

In February 1992, an accident occurred that would become the flashpoint in the debate over frivolous lawsuits. For many people, it seemed to provide irrefutable proof that lawsuits were out of control.

Stella Liebeck, a 72-year-old resident of Albuquerque, New Mexico, had stopped at a local McDonald’s with her grandson for a cup of coffee. While attempting to add cream and sugar to the cup, she accidentally dumped the coffee in her lap and suffered burns. Liebeck eventually filed a personal injury lawsuit against the fast food franchise, claiming that the coffee was too hot and caused serious injuries.

As usual, there are two sides to the story. Here are some important facts about the case that you probably never heard:

  1. Mrs. Liebeck was a passenger in the car, not the driver as initially reported. She had been portrayed as an unsafe driver trying to fix her coffee while driving.
  2. The car was not moving. Her grandson had stopped the car so that Mrs. Liebeck could safely add cream and sugar to her cup.
  3. Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries were quite serious. She was hospitalized for eight days with third degree burns over 6% of her body that required debridement and skin graft surgeries. She went through two years of medical treatment for the burns.
  4. McDonald’s knew of the danger. More than 700 people had previously filed claims of burns, many similar to Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries.
  5. McDonald’s representatives acknowledged that they knew of the burn risks but refused to warn customers and had no intention of lowering the temperature of their coffee, which was typically served at 185 degrees.

The jury sided with Mrs. Liebeck, awarding her $200,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million dollars in punitive damages. The judge reduced the combined amount to $640,000, at which point both parties appealed. They later settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, believed to be less than $600,000.

The Erie personal injury lawyers at Purchase, George & Murphey, P.C. dislike frivolous lawsuits because these kinds of lawsuits harm all of the legitimate claims brought by innocent and truly injured people. However, the bottom line is that despite all of the sensational headlines and jokes about her claim being a frivolous lawsuit, a closer look at the facts reveals that Mrs. Liebeck’s case had merit and that she deserved her day in court.

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