You may have heard of the famous American case of McDonalds v Liebeck (1994), where a woman spilt a cup of hot McDonalds coffee on her lap and subsequently sued the company. At a glance, this lawsuit may seem litigious and frivolous, which explains why it left the media in such frenzy. Catchy article names such as “Spill Hot Coffee – Win Millions!” lead to outcries from the public for law reform to minimize the number of frivolous lawsuits.

However, many key facts were omitted in the news stories at the time of the case. The claimant, Stella Liebeck, was a 79-year-old grandmother who was sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car – not driving – when the incident occurred. The coffee was at a temperature akin to that of a radiator at over 180 degrees Fahrenheit (or approximately 82 degrees Celsius). A liquid of this temperature can cause third degree burns within as little as 2 to 7 seconds. Whilst removing the lid and adding milk and sugar to the coffee, the Styrofoam cup spilt into Mrs. Lieback’s lap, soaking into the tracksuit pants she was wearing and burning her thighs and lower region.

The scalds from the coffee were so severe that Mrs. Liebeck went into shock and was taken to hospital. She was hospitalized for 8 days, requiring skin grafts and medical treatment to close the third degree burns which amounted to over $10,000, whilst McDonalds only offered to pay $800. At the time, McDonald’s had had over 700 previous burn-related complaints in the past suggesting a disregard for consumer safety. As such, the Jury awarded Mrs. Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages (which includes a 20% reduction for contributing to the injury) and $2.7 million dollars in punitive damages – to punish McDonalds in an attempt to try to change the company’s behaviour. This amount was later reduced by the Judge to $480,000 after the McDonalds store had reduced the temperature to 158 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite the judgement and the public trial, the parties held a secret settlement and it is unknown what the final compensation figure amounted to.

This case serves as a key reminder that we should not blindly accept what is communicated to us by the media as factual. There may be more to a story than what meets the eye.

Authored by Emma O’Bree, Lawyer at MBA Lawyers.

This article was inspired by the documentary, “Hot Coffee” (2011), directed and produced by Susan Saladoff, as well as her co-producers of Alan Oxman and Carly Hugo.