On February 27, 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck spilled a cup of McDonald's coffee and ignited a media firestorm. She suffered third-degree burns from the coffee and eventually sued McDonald's. The case became national news when Liebeck was awarded a "$2.9 million settlement." Most people wondered how someone could be awarded so much money for spilling coffee on herself. Many called the ruling ridiculous and tried to use Liebeck's lawsuit as proof that tort reform was necessary. Unfortunately, most people were misinformed about the facts of the case.
While Liebeck's lawsuit was called frivolous by the general public and mass media, most didn't know the background behind the lawsuit and the extent of the damage Liebeck suffered. For instance, Liebeck's car was parked when she attempted to put cream in her coffee and accidentally cup between her legs. As a result of wearing white cotton sweat pants, the coffee soaked up and she suffered severe third degree burns that required emergency skin grafts. She would spend the next eight days in the hospital recovering, losing 20 pounds in the process.
Liebeck took McDonald's to court after they refused to pay more than $800 for her medical bills. The case went to trial where two revelations about McDonald's coffee were revealed: McDonald's held their coffee at a much hotter temperature than was considered safe and, over the previous 10 years, they had received over 700 complaints about injuries sustained as a result of their coffee's temperature. The jury's verdict was that McDonald's were 80% at fault while Liebeck was 20% at fault. The verdict was also extremely distorted by the media.
The Real Verdict
Liebeck was not awarded $2.9 million. She was awarded $160,000 in compensatory damages and the Jury decided to award $2.7 million in punitive damages in order to send a message to McDonald's. The figure of $2.7 million came from an average of two full days of McDonald's coffee sales. However, the punitive damages award was eventually reduced to $480,000. Eventually Liebeck and McDonald's settled out of court for a number that was less than $600,000.
So how did Stella Liebeck's story get distorted? Big businesses conducted huge public relations campaigns to distort the truth in an attempt to limit people's access to the court system. They turned this case into a witch hunt for tort reform, confusing the media and the general public into thinking McDonald's was a victim. With laws placing caps on damages in these types of lawsuits, negligence similar to what was exhibited by McDonald's will become significantly more common.