McDonald’s + Hot Coffee = $2.7M? Attorney Rob Collins breaks down this famous case.

Personal Injury Lawyer Rob Collins breaks down the famous McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit. McDonald’s + Hot Coffee = $2.7M?

McDonald’s + Hot Coffee = $2.7M? Attorney Rob Collins breaks down this famous case.

Hi, I’m Attorney Rob Collins at Schwartz & Schwartz,

I was talking to some people on staff here recently at Schwartz & Schwartz and the famous McDonald’s coffee case came up. This is a case that anyone probably who has been alive in the last 20 years has heard of. It has actually been used as an example of why tort reform needs to be passed and why the jury system is broken. There are all types of myths around this case and I thought this would be a good opportunity to actually clarify some things. When this case came out, the media covered a very small slice of the case; they did not really explain the facts. They did not explain what happened after the trial and so I am going to give you some of the basics. There is an excellent documentary on HBO called Hot Coffee (86% on Rotten Tomatoes as of 2/12/2018) and I strongly recommend you watch it if this (case) interests you at all, it really gets into the details of the case.

Back in 1992, there was a 72 year old lady named Stella Liebeck. She was a passenger in her nephew’s vehicle. He was driving, she was not, and he stopped so that she could take the lid off of her coffee to put cream and sugar in. They had just gotten coffee at McDonald’s when she went to remove the lid and spilled the entire cup of coffee between her legs. She was wearing sweatpants at the time and the coffee, as we later learned, was between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result of this coffee soaking into her sweatpants, she ended up suffering third-degree burns over her legs, buttocks, thighs and genitals. The surgeons described it as about 6% of her total body area. Third-degree burns are the worst degree. As a result of these burns, she was hospitalized for 8 days, she had two years of follow-up treatment, she had to have skin grafts. This was a very painful and long-term medical condition that she had to deal with.

Originally, her attorneys went to McDonald’s and asked for around $20,000, really just to help cover the medical bills, co-pays, deductible – that type of thing. McDonald’s said, “No we are not going to give you anything.” So her attorneys filed suit. In every legal case, there is a process called discovery where the plaintiff gets to learn about what the defendant knows and the defendant gets to learn about what the plaintiff knows. In the discovery process it came out that McDonald’s was well aware that its coffee was at a dangerously hot level. In the 10 years prior to Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries, they had over 700 burn claims for their coffee, including third-degree degree burns.

Just to give you an idea of what 180 to 190 degrees is like, that is nothing like the coffee you make at home. When you make coffee at home, it is usually around 135 to 140 degrees. At 180 to 190 degrees, if that temperature coffee is in contact with the skin for between 2 to 7 seconds, it causes third degree burns. It is much much hotter than the coffee that you would get most places and far hotter than what you would get at home. In the discovery process in the lawsuit process, McDonald’s admitted quite a few things. You have to remember, McDonald’s is a big corporation and they are going to have top notch attorneys fighting this case. So, if they admitted these things then it is not like they got tricked into it, they really did know these things. They admitted that they had no effective warning on their coffee cups. They admitted that they had no warning that their coffee was so much hotter than the coffee that you would normally buy some place. In fact, they tried to say that the reason we sell our coffee so hot is because it is not intended for the person to actually drink it in the car. We sell this coffee under the belief that whoever buys it is going to drive home, drive to work and then drink it and that is why we make it so hot.

There is really no research or evidence to back up that belief. In fact, they knew that a lot of people drank the coffee in the car. They admitted that it is unsafe to drink coffee that is over 140 degrees. It can cause burns to the mouth and throat. They knew that. They also admitted that they knew the coffee was dangerous at the temperatures that they sold it, but they also had no intention of changing the temperature that they sold it. When this case went to the jury – this is the part that the media actually covered – it is a very small slice of the case. The jury awarded $200,000 for the medical bills. That was for the skin grafts, for the inpatient care, the 2 years of treatment. While we do not know the specifics in this case, in general, when medical bills are awarded by the jury, a the large portion of that award actually has to go and pay back the health insurance company. Most likely I would say at least half if not two-thirds of that award would have gone to pay back whoever actually paid for her medical care rather than Mrs. Liebeck, whether that is Blue Cross or whatever.

The jury also awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages and that really is what the media focused on. The $2.7 million number came from the plaintiffs attorney arguing to the jury, look they know it is dangerous, they say they have no intention on making it less dangerous, why don’t you award her two days of what McDonald’s make on coffee sales and that ended up being about $2.7 million. The jury agreed and that is really where the media coverage ended. That is the part of the case that everyone seems to want to remember and to believe to be true. Unfortunately for those who use this case to argue for tort reform, that is not how the judicial system works. The judicial system is set up so that you do not get crazy awards and if you do the courts can fix it.

In this case, the jury also decided that Mrs. Liebeck was 20% responsible for her injuries, so the $200,000 for medical bills and pain and suffering was reduced by 20% down to $160,000. Also, the judge reduced the punitive award from $2.7 down to $480,000, that is three times the actual award of $160,000 for medical bills and pain and suffering. You are really looking at a little over a half-million, right around $600,000 for the total award and that was at the end of the trial level case. The trial level is not the end of the case. The case got appealed by McDonald’s but before the appeals court made a decision, the case settled out of court. That settlement was secret, nobody knows exactly how much Mrs. Liebeck ended up with.

Generally, if a case settles between trial and appeal, the amount is going to be less than whatever the jury or the court awarded. We do not know how much less, but in reality, this case was not about some lady who was trying to drink coffee while she was driving and burned herself and didn’t know that hot coffee was hot and got you know a billion dollars. This case was really about McDonald’s refusing to sell a safe product and a jury saying that is not right, you really should sell a safe product. Since you have no intention of doing that, we are going to punish you and try to convince you to sell a safe product. In fact, there is some indication that it worked. McDonald’s has never come out and said this, but independent investigators have gone out to McDonald’s after the case and when they measure the temperature of the coffee being sold now, it was much lower, it was more like 160 degrees. As far as 160 degrees versus 180 and 190 degrees, it is much safer now than it was before this case. So, punitive damages are designed to punish somebody and to make other people in society not do the bad act that the punished party did. In this case they actually worked. Now the public is safer when they go and buy coffee from McDonald’s even though McDonald’s said they had no intention of doing that. I hope I have clarified some of the misconceptions that are out there. The popular beliefs on this case just really do not match up with the facts and if we are going to have honest debates in society, we really do need the facts. I would like to hear any of the comments that you may have so please put them below this video so I can read them. I am Attorney Rob Collins at Schwartz & Schwartz, thanks for your time.

McDonald’s + Hot Coffee = $2.7M? Attorney Rob Collins breaks down this famous case.

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