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Are Lawyers the Good Guys?

The meme of today’s attorney is that of an overpaid thorn in the side of progress.  I mean, they just sue companies for profit, right?  This is by no means a defense for every lawsuit and there are frivolous lawsuits out there but let’s look at one of the most famous cases as a perfect example.

If you were around in the 90’s then you inevitably heard about the McDonald’s coffee burn case.  If you ask the average person who heard about that case they’ll say something like “Oh yeah, isn’t that the one where the lady got a million bucks for spilling coffee on herself”? Actually no, that’s not what happened.

Overview: Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, also known as the “McDonald’s coffee case,” was a highly publicized 1994 product liability lawsuit. Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman, suffered third-degree burns after spilling a cup of McDonald’s coffee on her lap. The case became a focal point in debates over tort reform and is often mischaracterized as a frivolous lawsuit.

Incident Details: On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck purchased a cup of coffee from a McDonald’s drive-through in Albuquerque, New Mexico. While seated in a parked car, she placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the lid to add cream and sugar. The coffee spilled, causing third-degree burns on her thighs, buttocks, and groin. Liebeck was hospitalized for eight days and required skin grafts and two years of follow-up medical treatment.

Legal Proceedings: Liebeck initially sought $20,000 from McDonald’s to cover her medical expenses, but the company offered only $800. She then retained attorney Reed Morgan, who filed a lawsuit accusing McDonald’s of gross negligence for serving coffee at a temperature (180-190°F) capable of causing severe burns. During the trial, it was revealed that McDonald’s had received over 700 previous reports of coffee burns but had not changed its practices.

Trial and Verdict: The trial took place in August 1994. The jury found McDonald’s 80% responsible for the incident and awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages (reduced to $160,000 due to comparative negligence) and $2.7 million in punitive damages. The judge later reduced the punitive damages to $480,000. The parties eventually settled for an undisclosed amount before an appeal.

Impact and Aftermath: The case spurred a national debate on tort reform, with some viewing it as an example of frivolous litigation and others arguing it highlighted genuine consumer safety issues. Despite public perception, legal experts have defended the case’s merits, emphasizing McDonald’s responsibility for serving dangerously hot coffee. The case has been featured in documentaries and media reports, which have explored the broader implications for consumer protection and corporate accountability.