McDonald’s coffee case

You’ve probably heard of the famous ‘McDonald’s Coffee Case’ from the United States.

It has long been the poster child of “frivolous” compensation claims. The story goes that a woman didn’t realise that the coffee she bought was hot, spilled it on her lap, then sued McDonald’s and walked away with millions of dollars in compensation for a trivial accident.

In reality, Stella Liebeck, an 80-year old woman, suffered third degree burns over her groin area and genitalia. She had to have skin grafting, and she spent the rest of her life in agony.

It didn’t have to be like that. It was proved in court that McDonald’s had been serving its coffee almost 40 degrees hotter than the industry standard. McDonald’s knew that serving coffee this hot was bound to scald someone if they spilled it on their body – and they even admitted in Court that they had received over 700 complaints over ten years from people who had been burnt by their coffee. Incredibly, they had done nothing to reduce the temperature of the coffee to a safe level.

The Court awarded Ms Liebeck $160,000 in compensation for her injuries, which took into account her medical expenses, her pain and suffering and other needs. The jury also decided to order that McDonald’s pay Ms Liebeck $2.7 million dollars in punitive damages (later reduced by the trial judge to $480,000). The original figure represented two days of coffee sales for McDonald’s, and was designed to financially punish McDonald’s for having done nothing to change the temperature of its coffee after 700 burns cases.

Ms Liebeck’s case achieved its purpose. McDonald’s reduced the temperature of its coffee, and the number of people burned by their coffee decreased dramatically.

Ms Liebeck was able to pay for domestic assistance, including a live-in nurse, in the last years of her life, which gave her some comfort despite her loss of any real quality of life.

This is why the ability for victims to sue for compensation is so important – it allows for victims to be fully restored to the position they would have been in had their injury not occurred.

As compensation lawyers, we can forensically identify dangerous activity on the part of companies, and this provides a clear financial incentive for these sorts of hazards to be minimised.

Be wary of people who cite the ‘McDonald’s Coffee Case’ as an example of frivolous lawsuits being out of control. If you’re injured due to someone else’s negligence, you have a right to make them pay for it.

While Turner Freeman can still help you if you suffer loss because of defective products, it is important to note that this is an American case, and in New South Wales it is very rare for exemplary damages (our version of punitive damages) to be awarded in actions for negligent conduct.