The Stella Liebeck Story

Rather than provide you with another survivor’s featured post, we’re going to jump start the New Year with one of the most infamous personal injury stories in the U.S.: the Stella Liebeck story. 

One Rockford personal injury lawyer told us that Liebeck’s battle against McDonald’s paved the way for other victims of product liability and without her dedication in pursuing the compensation she deserved, countless others could have continued to suffer severe burns, just like she did. 

The case of Liebeck vs. McDonald’s is often seen as one of the most frivolous lawsuits in the country, but in all actuality, Ms. Liebeck was completely within her rights to hold McDonald’s accountable for their negligence.

It all started in 1992 when 79-year old Ms. Liebeck went through the drive-thru at her local McDonald’s to get a cup of coffee. Upon receiving the coffee, she suffered third-degree burns on the insides of her legs and genitals when the coffee spilled. 

Now, many people put the blame on Liebeck for spilling her coffee, but what if we told you that the temperature of the coffee was kept well above industry standards? Still not convinced? What if we told you that McDonald’s had received many other complaints in the weeks and years prior to Liebeck’s burns that the coffee was causing injuries?

There are many misconceptions surrounding Liebeck’s case, but here are the facts: 

  • Ms. Liebeck was not driving the car, her grandson was. 
  • They had parked the car to add cream and sugar to Liebeck’s coffee. The cup was between her legs when she removed the lid and subsequently suffered third degree burns when the coffee spilled. 
  • It only took 6 seconds for the coffee to cause these burns. 
  • She then required extensive skin grafts, spent 8 days in the hospital, and was not “fully-healed” until two years later.

When she asked McDonald’s to compensate her $20,000 for her medical expenses, they refused and countered with a measly $800! So she persisted and brought her case to court. It was discovered that not only did McDonald’s keep their coffee approximately 40 degrees hotter than industry standards, but they had also received over 700 other complaints for hot coffee burns, some of which happened to children, and failed to act! 

When the jury heard this, Ms. Liebeck was awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. This was later reduced by the judge to $480,000, but McDonald’s managed to escape this sum by settling with Ms. Liebeck outside of court for an undisclosed amount. 

Because of Stella Liebeck’s courageousness in coming forward, McDonald’s took action to make sure their coffee cups were labeled as extremely hot, warning consumers of the risk as they should have done all along.