Do you remember that McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit from back in the
90s? Whatever you think you can recall about that famous case, it probably
isn’t correct. The media, hearsay, and corporate interests can distort
the truth about lawsuits and laws over time, and this case is
the landmark example of how and why it happens.
Most people will tell you that the McDonald’s hot coffee case involved
a woman who ordered hot coffee, spilled it on herself while driving around,
sued McDonald’s for her
burn injuries, and won big –millions of dollars big. The centerpiece argument
for her case, according to the office watercooler talk, was that “she
didn’t know the coffee would be
that hot.” At the time, jokes about the woman’s argument and the
case as a whole popped up everywhere, including the popular television show
Seinfeld. Depending on who you speak to about the case, you might even hear that
she intentionally burned herself with the hot coffee to get some money.
So, how much of this is true? Basically, none of it.
The Truth of the Hot Coffee Case
The real facts of the case unfold much differently. The plaintiff was a
79-year old woman who spilled the hot coffee on her lap while sitting
in a parked car, and she would later admit that the spill was her mistake.
However, the coffee was served to her at a near-boiling 190 degrees Fahrenheit.
The spill caused severe third-degree burns on her legs and groin, and
the intensity of the burn was so painful she went into shock, which can
lead to fatal complications. Her medical treatment required emergency
hospitalization and skin graft surgery.
McDonald’s admitted that serving coffee at that temperature was hazardous,
and investigations would find that 700+ complaints against McDonald’s
existed due to coffee burns. The elderly woman only wanted McDonald’s
to pay her $20,000 out-of-pocket medical expenses and did not ask for
additional compensation. After months of inner deliberation, McDonald’s
only offered her $800 for her injuries and inconvenience. This lowball
settlement convinced the woman that the case needed to be taken to court.
A jury eventually decided that a $2.7 million award would be justified
– about what McDonald’s collected in two-day’s of coffee
sales at the time – but the case was
actually settled for about $600,000.
How Did the Facts Become Anything But?
McDonald’s had lost significantly against a working class plaintiff
who didn’t even want to get additional compensation for what happened
to her. To cover its tracks and defeat, its legal team started a disinformation
campaign to spread false facts about the case, including rumors that the
woman was driving when the cup was spilled. This sparked a corporate-led
anti-lawsuit campaign that goes on to this day. Its agenda is trying to
convince people that frivolous lawsuits are clogging up the legal system
and doing the country harm. Some companies have even gone as far as staging
fake protests against frivolous lawsuits to try to win public favor.
This all might sound too ridiculous to believe but it is absolutely true.
There is actually a great and humorous video, created by
TruTV, that goes into this story in more detail. You can
click here to be taken to
YouTube where you can watch it in full.
What Can Be Learned from the Coffee Case
There are two takeaways from this legendary case: 1) be careful judging
and believing what you hear around the watercooler and on television,
and 2) no lawsuit is frivolous since even a problem that affects one person
is still a problem. If you get hurt and you believe deserve compensation
for another party’s negligence, do not hesitate to explore and exercise
your rights. Leavitt, Yamane & Soldner and our Honolulu personal injury
attorneys are all about empowering the injured and seeking fair compensation
for wrongdoing and harm. We have been helping people all throughout Hawaii
since 1971 and are backed by an impressive history of case victories.
Call 808.518.2120 to request a free initial consultation