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The McDonald’s coffee case, also known as Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, is commonly used as propaganda by anti-consumer rights lobbyists to give the general public the untruthful impression that frivolous personal injury suits are bankrupting multi-billion dollar corporations. In order to portray this inaccurate picture, these groups have aggressively distorted the relevant facts of the case. Let’s set the record straight.

In 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, purchased a cup of coffee from a McDonald’s drive-through. She was a passenger in her grandson’s car and they stopped the car in the parking lot so she could put sugar and cream in her coffee. While wearing sweat pants, she held the coffee in between her legs so that she could remove the lid. There were no cup holders or level surfaces in the vehicle.

While attempting to remove the lid from the cup, dangerously hot coffee spilled in between her legs. Ms. Liebeck suffered third degree burns on her thighs, buttocks, and private parts, and required extensive medical treatment, including skin grafts to her thighs and vagina. She was in the hospital for 8 days.

Liebeck initially sought $20,000 from McDonald’s to cover her medical expenses and lost income. However, McDonald’s offered her only $800. Liebeck then hired a lawyer and filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s, alleging that the company had served coffee that was unreasonably hot, was aware of the dangers, failed to stop the practice and did not provide adequate warning about the potential danger.

During the trial, Liebeck’s lawyers presented evidence showing that McDonald’s knew about the risk of serious harm for more than 10 years and had received more than 700 complaints about burns to customers over that period. Despite this knowledge, McDonald’s operations manual required their franchises to keep the coffee at a temperature of 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit. This coffee temperature was 30-40 degrees hotter than other local New Mexico fast-food chains. Proof was also submitted that the high coffee temperature was money motivated. McDonald’s pursued the business of commuters who wanted their coffee to still be hot by the time they arrived at work.

The jury found McDonald’s liable for Liebeck’s injuries and awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages which included pain, suffering and medical expenses. However, they also determined that Liebeck was 20% responsible for her own injuries and reduced the award to

The jury also believed that McDonald’s conduct of knowingly serving dangerously hot coffee, despite knowledge of its dangers, warranted punitive damages. The jury separately awarded an additional $2.7 million in punitive damages that amounted to about two days of revenue for McDonald’s coffee sales. The trial judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, while noting that McDonald’s behavior had been “willful, wanton, and reckless.”

The case received significant media attention, and many critics wrongfully portrayed Liebeck as a greedy plaintiff who was seeking to profit from a trivial injury. However, the facts of the case reveal a much more complex situation. Liebeck suffered serious injuries that required extensive medical treatment, and McDonald’s had a history of knowingly serving coffee at a temperature that caused serious injuries to its customers. The case highlighted the need for businesses to prioritize customer safety and for individuals to have the right to seek compensation for injuries caused by negligence.

In conclusion, the McDonald’s coffee case is overly misrepresented by Corporations and Insurance companies with the purpose of eroding consumer rights through propaganda.
In truth, the McDonald’s case highlights the importance of holding businesses accountable for their actions and prioritizing consumer safety. The facts of the case demonstrate that it was not a frivolous lawsuit, but rather a legitimate claim for compensation for serious injuries caused by negligent behavior.

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