Personal Injury Cases: The Truth behind the Spilled Coffee

February 26, 2012 by

Companies have many ways of discouraging people who pursue personal injury cases, and one of the most effective is distorting the facts of the case in the media. It’s likely you’ve heard about the case of Stella Liebeck, the woman who sued McDonald’s over spilled coffee. Most people use her case as an example of why our system is broken. After all, who doesn’t know coffee is going to be hot, right?

 A recent HBO documentary entitled Hot Coffee explores not only the truth behind Stella’s case, which you may find surprising, but also the way big business has affected how people view our civil justice system. A public relations campaign which began in the mid-80’s set out to convince the public that our system is in need of major tort reform in order to limit people’s access to the court system due to too many frivolous lawsuits and out-of-control juries. As a Houston injury lawyer, I think the film brings to light important issues that most people aren’t even aware of.

 Personal Injury Cases: Houston Injury Lawyer Explains Stella’s Case

 This 79-year-old woman ordered a McDonald’s coffee in a drive-thru while sitting in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car. She removed the lid while holding the cup between her knees after the car had stopped, and the cup tipped over and poured the scalding coffee onto her lap.

 As a result, she suffered from third-degree burns on over 16% of her body. She was hospitalized for 8 days, received whirlpool treatment for debridement of her wounds, had skin grafting and scarring, and was on disability for more than two years. Even after all that, she offered to settle for $20,000, but McDonald’s rejected the amount and offered $800 instead.

 And so, as happens in many personal injury cases where a settlement can not be reached, the case went to court. A jury heard her story and awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages, which was reduced to $160,000 since the jury found that she was 20% at fault. The jury also rewarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages for the callous conduct of McDonald’s. These punitive damages were then reduced to $480,000 by the trial judge, who acknowledged that McDonald’s engaged in “willful, wanton, and reckless” behavior. Eventually, Stella and McDonald’s settled for a confidential amount.

 During the case, it came out that McDonald’s Operations Manual required its coffee to be between 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature which can cause third-degree burns in 3 to 7 seconds. (Other establishments in the area kept their coffee 30 to 40 degrees cooler.) These burns cannot heal without the type of treatment that Stella received and can result in permanent disfigurement. McDonald’s admitted to knowing about the risk of serious burns from its coffee for more than 10 years. In fact, it came to light that the risk was brought to their attention through many other personal injury cases, and yet they did nothing to change their policy. Between 1982 and 1992, over 700 people experienced severe burns to the genital area, perineum, inner thighs, and buttocks.

 What many of us believe was simply a “money-hungry” plaintiff actually was a case of gross negligence by McDonald’s. The facts of the case were distorted in a campaign organized by big business in order to call for tort reform that would affect other personal injury cases.

 If you or a loved one have been injured in an accident, contact Marc Whitehead, a board certified personal injury attorney in Houston, Texas or download our free ebook, Car & Truck Crashes, 10 Secrets Victims Should Know To Protect Their Rights.