The most famous product liability case could be the McDonald’s too-hot coffee case. For a long time, people made jokes about this case, calling it a glaring example of a frivolous lawsuit. The general consensus seemed to be that the jury who decided in the woman’s favor must have all been idiots.
Stella Liebeck, 79 years old, spilled a cup of takeout coffee in her lap at a McDonald’s drive-thru. She was awarded almost $3 million in punitive damages for her burns, an unusual award.
Outrageous? After all, wasn’t she driving when she spilled the coffee? Anyway, coffee should be hot.
What Really Happened
Mrs. Liebeck wasn’t driving, she was the passenger in a stopped car. The coffee cup was between her knees when it tipped over in her lap.
The temperature of the coffee wasn’t hot, but dangerously hot, per corporate policy. It was much hotter than coffee sold elsewhere. Mrs. Liebeck’s sweat pants absorbed the coffee, holding it against her skin. She received third-degree burns, the most serious type. Skin grafts were required, predominantly on her inner thighs – a very painful procedure.
• McDonald’s had received over 700 reports over 10 years of people being injured from admittedly too-hot coffee.
• Some received third-degree burns.
• A few settlements were paid.
All Mrs. Liebeck wanted was $20,000 for her medical expenses and lost income. The most McDonald’s offered was $800. The case went to trial. The jury reduced compensation awarded to Mrs. Liebeck because they considered her to be partially at fault.
The punitive damage award sent a message. McDonald’s had refused to change their policy after hundreds of injuries. As a result, the jury awarded her damages equal to two days revenue from the chain’s coffee sales. A judge later reduced the award by 80%. Eventually, Mrs. Liebeck and McDonald’s settled for an undisclosed amount.
Jurors later said they made the award because McDonald’s had shown such “callous disregard” for people’s safety. Incidentally, McDonald’s stopped selling dangerously hot coffee after this case.
Anyone injured by a defective product deserves to be compensated for their injuries. A Product Liability Lawyer in Beaver Dam WI will hold the company accountable for their actions. Other people will benefit as a result when the defective product is no longer sold.
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