Feb 21, 2011
A new documentary, Hot Coffee, reveals the true story of Stella Liebeck who sued McDonald’s after spilling a scorching cup of hot coffee on her lap in 1992. News and TV shows of every sort ridiculed Liebeck and her case. ABC News called the case “the poster child of excessive lawsuits.” Toby Keith recently produced a song called “American Ride,” which says “Spill a cup of coffee, make a million dollars.” Companies spent millions of dollars, using this case to change the product liability law to their advantage.
But what actually happened had nothing to do with the lies the news and companies asked us to believe.
Liebeck was 79 years old when the scorching coffee caused third-degree burns covering 16% of her body. Her treatment required skin grafting and eight days stay in a hospital, followed by two years of medical treatment. During this period, Liebeck lost 20 pounds, reducing her down to 83 pounds.
Medicare paid only 80% of this medical treatment. To cover the remaining 20%, Liebeck asked McDonald’s for $10,000. They came back with an offer of $800 and told Liebeck she could sue them if she wanted more.
It turned out that McDonald’s manual requires employees to keep coffee temperature around 187 degrees when poured into a styrofoam cup. Normal pots keep coffee below 162 degrees. To have a much higher temperature was obviously a risk to consumers and workers – a purely business decision by McDonald’s to cut costs – and improve profits.
McDonald’s produced a huge chart with 700 names in court, arguing that these people were also burned by their coffee, but this happened over 10 years. Therefore, said McDonald’s, such burns were statistically insignificant.
Simply put, McDonald’s admitted that they were knowingly burning the skin of more than one person every week and didn’t care about it. Such callousness coming from McDonald’s own mouth not only stunned the jury, but the judge as well. The judge directed the jury to consider punitive damages. And the jury agreed.
Companies are cold schemers. They need to be scorched a little bit!