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 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.
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 CollegeHumor with 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.
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.