That McDonald’s Lady Got A Million Dollars! Myths and Facts of “The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case”

Here at Segar & Sciortino we frequently talk to our clients (and potential clients) about case value.  We try to explain that valuing a personal injury case is as much an art as it is a science, and a lot of factors go into making that determination.  These include

  • The nature and extent of the injury
  • The permanency of the disability
  • The injured person’s medical history, age, gender, occupation and family obligations
  • The amount of treatment the person received
  • The make-up of the jury pool in the area the case is brought

Even someone’s personality or demeanor can change how a case is valued.  And all too often, when we tell someone that their case isn’t worth as much as they think it is we hear, “But that McDonald’s lady got a million dollars!”  However, most people don’t know the whole McDonald’s story.  In this post, we’ll clear-up some misconceptions about this infamous case.

Myth: A middle-aged lady drove herself through the McDonald’s drive-through.  She bought a cup of coffee, put it between her legs and drove off.  While driving, the lid popped off and spilled coffee on her lap.

Fact: Stella Liebeck, the so-called “McDonald’s lady,” was 79 years old at the time of this accident.  She was a passenger in her grandson’s car.  She ordered a cup of coffee at the drive-through and it was served to her in a Styrofoam cup.  After their order was completed, her grandson pulled the car forward out of the drive-through lane and stopped again to allow Stella to add cream and sugar to her coffee.  Stella placed the coffee between her knees so she could use both hands to open the lid and add her sugar.  While removing the lid the cup tipped over and poured the entire cup of 190 degree coffee all over her sweatpants, which absorbed the hot liquid and held it against her skin.

Myth: The lady got a little burn.

Fact: Stella suffered third-degree burns (the most serious kind of burns) over her lap, which included large portions of her inner thighs and other sensitive areas.  She was hospitalized for 8 days and endured several very painful procedures to clean her wounds.  She required skin grafts and suffered serious and permanent scarring.

Myth:  She sued them for a Million Dollars!

Fact: Stella offered to settle her case for $20,000, but McDonald’s refused her offer.

Myth:  She got a Million Dollars!

Fact:  The jury awarded Stella $200,000 for her injuries, which the judge reduced to $160,000 because Stella was 20% at fault for her accident.  The jury then also awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages against McDonald’s because they knew their coffee was dangerously hot and they served it like that anyway because it “tasted better.”  The judge then reduced this award to $480,000.  McDonald’s appealed and eventually the case settled for an undisclosed amount.

Myth:  McDonald’s got punished for serving hot coffee.  Everyone serves hot coffee!

Fact:   McDonald’s didn’t just serve their coffee hot– their operations manual required that is be served between 180 and 190 degrees; 30-40 degrees hotter than other coffee-serving restaurants in the area.  The Shriner’s Burn Institute in Cincinnati issued warnings that coffee served above 130 degrees was “dangerously hot.”  McDonald’s knew that their coffee was “not fit for consumption” at the temperature it was served because it caused third-degree burns within 3-7 seconds of contact with the skin.  In the ten years prior to this accident they had 700 complaints of burns from their coffee, including complaints of burns to children and infants from accidental spills.

Conclusion:  The important thing to take away from this story is that the seven-figure number you read about in the newspaper is very frequently not the actual amount a plaintiff receives, particularly in Upstate New York.  Stella Liebeck was awarded only $200,000 for her serious, third-degree burns, and then the judge reduced that award to $160,000.  Even the punitive damages award, which resulted from exceptionally callous behavior on the part of McDonald’s, was reduced by the court to a number decidedly below $1 million.  Courts very frequently reduce large jury awards, but the newspapers don’t report that information.

Here at Segar & Sciortino, we have decades of experience valuing personal injury cases.  We don’t lure you in with brags about million-dollar jury verdicts that were cut in half by the courts.  We give you honest, realistic estimates of what we believe your case is worth.  If you have questions about a possible lawsuit for an injury you suffered due to someone else’s carelessness, please give us a call.