Was the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case a Frivolous Lawsuit as It Is Portrayed?


The hot coffee lawsuit refers to a legal case in which Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, sued McDonald’s after she spilled hot coffee on herself and suffered severe burns. The incident occurred in 1992, when Liebeck ordered a cup of coffee at a drive-thru window and placed it between her knees while sitting in the passenger seat of her parked car. She attempted to remove the lid to add cream and sugar, but the cup tipped over and the coffee spilled onto her lap.

Liebeck’s injuries were severe, resulting in third-degree burns on her thighs, buttocks, and groin area that required hospitalization and skin grafting. She initially sought $20,000 in damages to cover her medical expenses, but when McDonald’s refused to settle the case, Liebeck decided to take the fast-food giant to court.

During the trial, it was revealed that McDonald’s had received over 700 complaints of burns from its hot coffee in the previous 10 years. The company also admitted that it kept the coffee at a temperature between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit, which is significantly higher than the industry standard of around 160 degrees.

The jury ultimately found McDonald’s liable for Liebeck’s injuries and awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. However, the judge later reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, and the case ultimately settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

The hot coffee lawsuit has become a favorite target of critics of the American legal system, who argue that it represents an example of frivolous lawsuits and “jackpot justice.” They claim that Liebeck was to blame for her own injuries, and that the large award was an undeserved windfall.  Consequently, they portray injury lawyers as greedy opportunists who prey on the vulnerable and exploit the legal system for their own gain. They suggest that injury lawyers are more concerned with making a profit than with helping their clients, and that they use tactics such as scaremongering and exaggeration to generate business. 

As was demonstrated in the hot coffee lawsuit, the same could not be farther from the truth.  Liebeck’s lawyers, due to McDonald’s failure to pay Liebeck’s medical expenses caused by its negligence, played an important role in protecting their clients rights to help her receive the compensation she needed to cover her medical expenses and other costs associated with her injuries.  And, in holding companies like McDonald’s accountable for its actions, they help to prevent similar accidents from happening in the future. 

Injury lawyers play an important role in protecting the rights of those who have been harmed by the negligence or wrongdoing of others, and the award in this case helped to compensate the victim for the harm she had suffered.  To the extent that you have suffered injury as a result of someone else’s negligence and the at-fault party has delayed, denied, or offered insufficient monies for your injury, the Miami attorneys at The Farber Law Firm can helpContact us for a free consultation!

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