Most people have heard of the 1994 case of the old woman spilling McDonald’s coffee in her lap, being severely burned in the process, suing McDonald’s over it, and securing millions of dollars after a verdict in her favor. My law school career began in 1999 and, I must say, when non-lawyers speak to me about the law, this McDonald’s coffee case, often to the exclusion of all the famous, important, and significant cases that the Courts have heard over the years, decades, and centuries, is routinely mentioned, especially as some sort of lament over the perceived abuse of the legal system, and using tort law as a substitute for playing the lottery.
There is just so much misconception over this case that any conversation about it becomes a sort of deconstruction of previously held misconceptions – generally thanks to the media and widespread public perception – more than it is about the legal significance of the case.
Before reading this post and/or watching the video below, did you know:
(1) the coffee was heated 30 degrees hotter than a home brewer can heat coffee?
(2) the woman burned was not driving and her car had no available cup holders?
(3) the woman did not make millions but only about $600,000, much of which went to pay her very large medical bills?
(4) the woman suffered third degree burns?
(5) McDonald’s was aware of the fact that literally hundreds of people had been similarly burned by their coffee over the 10 year period prior to the famous 1994 case and took no action to make their coffee safer?
Once all of the facts are known, it becomes clear that this case is far from being the poster child of the abuse of the legal process and is hardly an example of people looking to “frivolous” tort cases to become overnight millionaires.
For a great look at the details of this case – and some photographs of the burns themselves – check out this video posted on upworthy.com:
Also, here is the wiki page for the case which includes the official caption and citation and other details which may be interesting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stella_Liebeck