Liebeck vs. McDonald’s Restaurants

The case of Liebeck vs. McDonald’s is one of the most iconic personal injury decisions in the history of the U.S. In fact, it was one of the most sensationalized media stories of it’s time, with many people being under the impression that some little old lady sued McDonald’s and got away with millions of dollars, according to one Dallas personal injury lawyer. Those who are familiar with the story, however, know that this isn’t the case. 

It all began back in 1992, when a then 79-year-old Stella Liebeck was making her way through the McDonald’s drive-thru. After ordering a coffee, it spilled onto her lap, and within just three seconds, she had suffered third-degree burns over nearly 20 percent of her body, including her legs, inner thighs, and genital region. She remained in the hospital for eight days after the accident and had to get skin grafts in order to fully recover. She was unable to fully recover until more than two years had passed.

During this time, people were quick to blame Ms. Liebeck for spilling the coffee, but what most people don’t know is that McDonald’s had received hundreds of complaints of the coffee being kept at temperatures well-above industry standards and causing serious burn injuries. McDonald’s Restaurants ignored these reports and continued to serve coffee that was much too hot. 

Liebeck originally offered to settle her case with McDonald’s for just $20,000, but they rejected her offer and countered at a measly $800 —an amount that wouldn’t even cover her medical bills. The case went to court and when the jury heard that more than 700 burn injuries, including child burns, had been reported and McDonald’s had failed to take steps to protect their consumers, they came down in favor of Ms. Liebeck. 

She was initially awarded a sum of $200,000 to cover her medical bills, pain and suffering, and other economic and non-economic damages. This figure was then reduced by her portion of shared fault (20 percent) down to $160,000. An additional award of $2,700,000 was given in the form of punitive damages (though this figure was reduced to $480,000 by the judge and later settled confidentially for less than $500,000). 

The $2.7 million award went down in history as the story of one woman’s crusade against McDonald’s and her supposed manipulation of the civil court system. We now know that this was not the case, and that Ms. Liebeck was just one of McDonald’s Restaurants’ victims. They have since implemented “Caution. Hot Beverage.” notices on their beverages, and have seemingly reduced the temperatures of their coffee back down to industry standards.