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“Hot Coffee”, Stella Liebeck vs. McDonalds, and the Myth of the Frivolous Lawsuit

Hot Coffee” a documentary about the myth of the frivolous lawsuit, focuses primarily on the now infamous Stella Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants hot coffee case of 1994.This case brought attention to the idea that American people may be flippant and out-of-touch when pursuing lawsuits against large corporations.

What Actually Happened

In actuality, Liebeck won the case and was silenced as a term of the settlement. McDonalds then released PR campaigns defending the company and making Stella Liebeck seem like a litigious lunatic.

Hot Coffee is hoping to shed some light on this case and others like it so that the public is aware that in certain situations – the idea of the frivolous lawsuit is just a symptom of people buying into corporate messaging.

How much do you really know?

Find out how much you really know about Stella Liebeck and the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit case by taking this short multiple choice quiz.

  1. When Stella Liebeck was burned, she was in the:

    (A) driver’s seat
    (B) passenger seat
    (C) rear seat
    (Answer: B passenger seat)

  2. When the coffee spilled, the car was:

    (A) moving
    (B) parked
    (C) on the highway
    (Answer: B parked)

  3. The cup:

    (A) was being handed to her and was dropped
    (B) in her crotch
    (C) was between her knees
    (Answer: C was between her knees)

  4. When the coffee spilled, Stella was:

    (A) squeezing her legs together while reaching for her food
    (B) removing the lid to add cream and sugar
    (C) eating her breakfast
    (Answer: B  removing the lid to add cream and sugar)

  5. Stella received burns to her:

    (A) inner thighs
    (B) perineum
    (C) buttocks
    (D) genitalia
    (E) all the above
    (Answer: E all of the above)

  6. These burns were:

    (A) 1st degree
    (B) 2nd degree
    (C) 3rd degree
    (D) all the above
    (Answer: D all of the above)

  7. Stella required:

    (A) 2 days in the hospital
    (B) 5 days in the hospital
    (C) 8 days in the hospital and skin grafting surgery
    (Answer: C 8 days in the hospital and skin grafting surgery)

  8. The McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that the company actively enforced a requirement that its coffee be served between: (hint: your coffee at home comes out at about 135 degrees)

    (A) 140 to 150 degrees
    (B) 150 to 170 degrees
    (C) 180 to 190 degrees
    (Answer: C 180 to 190 degrees)

  9. True or False?

    McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that the company knew that coffee served at the required temperature was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat
    (Answer: True!)

  10. According to the experts, coffee served at the temperature as required by McDonald’s will cause full thickness burns to human skin in:

    (A) 2 to 7 seconds
    (B) 10 to 20 seconds
    (C) 30 to 60 seconds
    (Answer: A 2 to 7 seconds)

  11. Prior to Stella’s burns, McDonald’s had received more than this many coffee burn claims:

    (A) 100
    (B) 300
    (C) 700
    (Answer: C 700)

  12. Prior to filing her lawsuit, McDonald’s rejected Stella’s offer to settle all her claims, medical bills, injury and scarring, for the total amount of:

    (A) $20,000
    (B) $100,000
    (C) $500,000
    (Answer: A $20,000)

  13. The jury evaluated Stella’s total claim for compensatory damages for all of her medical bills, her injuries, and her scarring at:

    (A) $200,000
    (B) $500,000
    (C) $2,000,000
    (Answer: A $200,000)

  14. Based on the evidence and testimony, the jury also awarded punitive damages against McDonald’s in the amount of:

    (A) $2,700,000
    (B) $4,300,000
    (C) $10,000,000
    (Answer A $2,700,000)

  15. Which was later reduced by the court at McDonald’s request to:

    (D) $480,000
    (E) $1,500,000
    (F) $5,000,000
    (Answer D $480,000)

  16. As her percentage share of her own responsibility or fault for contributing to her own injury, the jury assessed fault against Stella in the amount of:

    (A) 0% her fault, 100% McDonald’s fault
    (B) 10% her fault, 90% McDonald’s fault
    (C) 20% her fault, 80% McDonald’s fault
    (Answer C  20% her fault, 80% McDonald’s fault)

Here’s the more surprising truth

McDonald’s received claims on similar cases for 10 years, and quietly settled them, spending more than $500,000 to keep them out of court and did not change its policies regarding the coffee temperature

  • Unreasonable counteroffer – Stella’s medical bills totaled more than $11,000,and McDonald’s responded to her $20,000 offer to settle with a counter offer of only $800
  • Unreasonable refusal – McDonald’s had several other chances to settle the case before trial: At one point, Stella’s attorney offered to settle for $300,000.  In addition, days before the trial, the judge ordered both sides into a mediated settlement conference where the mediator, a retired judge, recommended that McDonald’s settle for $225,000.  McDonald’s refused all attempts to settle the case
  • Paltry  penalty – The punitive damages against McDonald’s equaled only about 2 days of McDonald’s coffee sales; similar to the average person paying a parking ticket
  • McDonald’s gets off easy – After appeals, and after the court reduced the punitive award to only 3 times the damage award, or $480,000, for a total of $640,000, the claim was finally settled for a confidential sum believed to be a lesser amount
  • And, keeps it out of the news – As part of this settlement, McDonald’s demanded that no one could release the details of the case
  • What’s the good news? – Soon after the verdict, investigation revealed that the McDonald’s in the area where Stella was burned were serving coffee at an average temperature below 160 degrees !!!
  • The bad news – It’s just too bad Stella, and hundreds of other people had to be senselessly injured, courts and juries tied up for weeks, months, and years, and millions of dollars spent on litigation before a big corporation would recognize that personal safety is always more important than profit

We also enjoyed reading this satirical memo about the topic, found on The Pop Tort.

The Conclusion

Yes, this “frivolous lawsuit” and many others just like it have made a very positive difference in making your lives, and those of your family more safe in the long run. View the trailer for “Hot Coffee” below.

Content provided by David W. Ransin, Trial Attorney

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