What the Infamous McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case Means for NYC Injury Victims

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No case matches the McDonald’s hot coffee case for the sheer number of times it’s been either made fun of or trotted out to discourage personal injury victims from seeking compensation. The myth of this case was that someone got themselves hurt because they were “too stupid” to know that “coffee is hot” and then tried to make a bunch of money off the case.

In reality, the facts of the case are significantly different from all the jokes and memes about the case. And this shouldn’t surprise you. After all, insurance companies and corporations with deep pockets are incentivized to make people skeptical about personal injury claims. 

The Facts of the Case

The name of the case is Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, which took place in 1992. Here are the actual facts of the case.

  • By corporate specifications, McDonald’s sold its coffee at temperatures 30 to 40 degrees hotter than the industry standards and failed to warn consumers that this temperature was sufficient to cause third-degree burns, which do not heal without skin grafting. 
  • McDonald’s knew the coffee was dangerous. 700 people had been burned in the past, including children. McDonald’s neither changed their policy nor warned the public. 
  • McDonald’s knew any coffee above 140 degrees would be considered a burn hazard but had no intention of reducing the coffee temperature even after they learned this fact. 
  • The coffee that burned Stella Liebeck was hot enough to cause third-degree burns through clothes in three seconds. She suffered those burns over 16% of her body, including her inner thighs and genitals. She had to be hospitalized for 8 days. 
  • By contrast, coffee at just 160 degrees causes third-degree burns through clothes in 20 seconds, which usually gives people time to wipe the coffee away. 
  • Liebeck offered to settle the case for just $20,000, roughly the cost of her medical expenses at the time. She also asked them to consider lowering the temperature of the coffee so others would not be harmed. In response, McDonald’s offered $800, failing to cover her medical expenses. This forced the case to trial.
  • The jurors awarded a total of $200,000 in compensatory damages, reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Liebeck to be 20% at fault. But they awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages, or two days of revenue for McDonald’s coffee sales. A judge later reduced it to $480,000. 
  • Liebeck did not get this much money. During appeals, she settled with McDonald’s for less than $500,000. A decent sum but hardly a fortune, even in 1992. Hardly a sum one could live on for life, even after deducting medical expenses, even though Liebeck was an elderly woman. 

Also worth remembering: cup holders did not exist at that point in time, the sculptured coffee cup lid with a sipping hole on top didn’t exist at that time, cup sleeves did not exist at that time, and McDonald’s would usually just put cream and sugar in your bag rather than adding it to the cup. Liebeck, a passenger in the vehicle, put the cup between her knees. She then opened the cup to add cream and sugar, which was common and foreseeable in 1992. 

If you want to learn more about this case, there’s a 2011 documentary that addresses it in deeper depth. 

The insurance industry wasted no time distorting the facts across media reports to push a tort reform agenda.

What This Case Means for New Yorkers

First, don’t be afraid to seek compensation if you’re injured in an accident. You are not being “greedy” or “whiny.” If a New York personal injury lawyer agrees that your case has merit, then you are well within your rights.

Don’t expect to get rich; the final value will likely pay for some of your expenses, help you recoup your lost wages, and give you a little more to get back on your feet and address the fallout from the accident. Even when a jury awards a big verdict, a judge or appeals court may reduce it later, which is one reason we prefer settling these cases out of court. 

Finally, don’t let the media fool you. You’re not “ruining” anything by pursuing a lawsuit. If anything, corporate greed runs rampant…McDonald’s felt it was more profitable to turn an elderly woman into a national joke than give up two days’ worth of coffee sales revenue.

If you’ve been injured in an accident, don’t let big corporations trample your rights. Contact our office to schedule a free case review today.

See also: 

Myths and Truths About Personal Injury Cases in New York

How Are Pain and Suffering Calculated in NYC?

Recovering Personal Injury Compensation After a Severe Fire in NYC

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    Mr. Richman is the Managing Member and Founder of Richman Law Firm PLLC. In his role as Managing Member, Mr. Richman oversees the day-to-day operations of the firm and handles the litigation of the most complex legal matters across a vast array of practice areas and disciplines. ​

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