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Indiana Personal Injury Attorneys Blog
Indiana Personal Injury Lawyer Blog

The Most Famous Personal Injury Case?: The McDonald's Cup of Coffee

Perhaps the most famous personal injury cases that had been litigated in the United States was that which involved McDonald's Corporation and a cup of coffee. The case is Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurant (Case No. D-202-CV-199302419) involving a proverbial little old lady versus a big heartless corporation. The story was lampooned nationally by everyone from David Letterman on his Late Night Show to comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who made a parody of the incident in an episode titled, "The Maestro," which aired on NBC on October 5, 1995.

The case involved a 79 year old retiree, Stella Liebeck and a McDonald's restaurant located in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The ramifications of the case were more far reaching as it was decided during the midst of the 1994 congressional campaign and was at the heart of a Republican platform issue regarding “tort reform.” Many in the public hold strong opinions about the case and the initial verdict rendered by the court; however, there is much misunderstanding about the underlying facts and what happened.

The Plaintiff

Stella Liebeck was a 79 year old retired department store clerk who purchased a cup of coffee from a McDonald's Restaurant location in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This took place in February of 1992. As the order was placed and retrieved from the drive through window, Ms. Liebeck who was a passenger in the vehicle driven by her grandson and not the driver, as was widely initially reported, waited for grandson to park and as she attempted to remove the lid from the Styrofoam cup, the contents of the coffee cup spilled in her lap. The coffee, which was estimated at a temperature of between 180 and 190 degrees, caused third degree burns on her interior thigh, buttocks, genital and groin area.

Ms. Liebeck was hospitalized for a period of eight days and received skin grafts to the affected areas. She was permanently disfigured as a result of injury and was temporarily disabled for a period of two years following the incident. She incurred medical expenses of $11,000 that she asked McDonald's to cover; however, her request was denied.

The Defendant

McDonald's Corporation, which is the world's largest chain of fast food restaurants, was founded in San Bernardino, California in 1940 by brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald. The corporation was formed in Des Plaines, Illinois by partner Ray Kroc who would oversee the expansion and development of the McDonald's brand into a multi-billion dollar corporation.

When Stella Liebeck approached the corporation for the reimbursement of medical expenses incurred as a result of the burns she suffered and was turned down, her attorney Reed Morgan requested a payment of $90,000 to cover her medical expenses as well as pain and suffering endured. McDonald's refused, counteroffering $800 as a way to make the requests go away.

The Case

The case was brought before the Bernalillo County, New Mexico District Court before Judge Robert H. Scott through a complaint that was filed on March 12, 1993. The case was decided sometime in mid-1994 whereby a jury awarded the sum of $2.9 million to Ms. Liebeck. Had McDonald's Corporation responded to an early request by a court appointed mediator to pay the sum of $225,000 to the plaintiff, especially in light of the fact that the corporation had made past payments of $500,000 to other coffee burn victims, no doubt this case would have not seen the light of day or received the level of notoriety that it has received over the following decades.

The Outcome

Although the trial judge later reduced the punitive award in the case to $480,000 and the parties settled for an even lower amount, the case had an impact on companies from a liability standpoint. McDonald's began to label its coffee cups to indicate that the coffee was hot and lower the temperature of its coffee products from its 180 to 190 temperature range. The public outrage directed toward Ms. Liebeck, who the media portrayed as a sue happy litigant, led to many attempts to reform tort law and place limits and caps on the awards that a potential plaintiff could receive from a court.

Perhaps the biggest outcome of the case was that companies like McDonald's Corporation, whose arrogance and hubris were noted in the trial transcript, made some changes in the way they treat their customers and instituted some safety rules that would help protect the public in the future.

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