Many people have heard about the so-called “McDonald’s coffee case”. It has been widely used to mock those injured by the carelessness of others and belittle their injuries and claims for compensation. The insurance industry in particular likes to use the case for propaganda about the need for so-called “tort reform” in an effort to evade financial responsibility for the bad behavior of its corporate clients.

So what really happened in this case?

In 1992, a McDonald’s restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico was serving coffee as hot as 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit to its customers at its drive through window. At the time, it was accepted that beverages served at temperatures in excess of 140 degrees dramatically increased the dangers of burns even from short term exposure of skin to liquids at such temperatures. For as mush as ten years prior to the injury to Mrs. Liebeck, McDonald’s had been made well aware of the danger. The company had received over 700 complaints of burn injuries from overheated coffee served at its restaurants.

McDonald’s tried to justify its decision to continue to serve its overheated coffee despite the obvious danger by arguing that many customers were commuters who wanted their coffee to still be hot by the time they reached their destination. McDonald’s own research demonstrated that many other customers drank their coffee immediately or while en route in their vehicles, and that they were burning themselves with the overheated coffee.

On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, age 79, was a passenger in her grandson’s automobile, and had just bought a cup of coffee in the drive through. The car was parked and she was trying to remove the lid of the cup to add cream and sugar when the lid came off suddenly and the coffee spilled all over her lap. She suffered third degree burns over 6% of her body, including to her private areas, and first and second degree burns over another 16% of her body.

What should have been no more than a trip to the laundry to wash her clothing instead led to Mrs. Liebeck being hospitalized as an in-patient for eight days and subsequently undergoing numerous painful skin graft operations. Her medical treatment lasted for two years. She suffered permanent scars and disfigurement.

The evidence at trial showed that McDonald’s revenue at that time for coffee sales alone was approximately $1.35 million per day, and Mrs. Liebeck’s attorney had argued for the jury to penalize McDonald’s for its bad behavior by awarding a penalty of just two days of these dangerous coffee sales. The jury awarded Ms. Liebeck punitive damages of $2.7 million. The trial judge, however, reduced the entire award to $640,000.00. The case was later settled for an undisclosed amount.

Corporations, and in particular the insurance industry, often distort the facts of cases to use them as a justification for so-called “tort reform”. The truth of Stella Liebeck’s terrible misfortune was reduced to a mocking parody by these corporate interests for this purpose.

“Tort reform” is an effort to limit access to justice to the court system for persons who are victims of corporate bad behavior. In fact, the McDonald’s coffee case serves for the proposition that courts likely remain the best place to seek and receive compensation for injuries caused by the negligence of others, but also a useful weapon in the battle to force modification of bad corporate behavior so that unnecessary injury to business patrons for the sake of profit will stop.