McDonald’s Coffee and Chicago Personal Injury Law

It has a Wikipedia entry. More than that, it is symbolic of our perception of a “lawsuit culture,” riddled with frivolous cases and claims, spurred on by greed and predatory Chicago personal injury attorneys.

In truth, the Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants case, also known as the “McDonalds coffee case,” has been misinterpreted and misrepresented since it appeared on the public scene in the mid-90’s. The basic facts are not in dispute: Stella Lebeck, 79, spilled a $.49 cup of coffee into her lap just minutes after purchasing it in the drive-through lane. She recieved 3rd degree burns requiring skin grafts, whirlpool treatments, and other extreme medical measures, incurring approximately $11,000 dollars in medical expenses. She asked McDonald’s to pay for her medical bills. When they would offer no more than $800 (less than 1/10 of the total medical expenses), she eventually filed a lawsuit and was eventually awarded $2.86 million by jury. The judge in the trial reduced the amount to $640,000. In the face of an appeal, Liebeck and McDonald’s settled privately for an undisclosed sum. The case has since become the stuff of legal legend.

It seems to fly in the face of American individualism, self-respect, -sufficiency, and -responsibility that an individual could hold someone else accountable for his/her clumsiness and self-injury. This argument does hold water in many cases and, thankfully, the world of lawsuits against newspaper publishers for paper cuts or against furniture manufacturers for stubbed toes has not come to pass. Perish the thought – every Chicago accident attorney shudders at the possibility.

But are these hyperbolic examples substantially different from Liebeck? Yes and no. In truth, either side can be and has been effectively argued, but here let’s illuminate the side usually NOT heard. The McDonald’s coffee case involves much more than a clumsy person scoring a windfall through dubious and exploitive legal tactics.

1)  McDonald’s coffee is served at least 20 degrees hotter than at other restaurants.

2)  Over 700 incidents of coffee burns have been settled by the McDonald’s Corporation, and yet not policy change or consultation to address the problem has been taken.

3)  During the Liebeck case, a quality assurance manager at McDonald’s testified that the company was aware of the risk of serving dangerously hot coffee .

4)  The incredible monetary award initially assigned by the jury in the case was largely punitive – that is, it was meant to punish McDonald’s for “willful, reckless, malicious, or wanton conduct,” rather than to compensate Liebeck for $2.7 million worth of pain and suffering. 

5)  Reports indicate that McDonald’s continues to keeps its coffee substantialy hotter than other restaurants. At approximately 185 degrees, third degree burns (the most severe type) may occur two to seven seconds. 

It is in the best interest of everyone to learn from this situation – not dismissing it out of hand or allowing the pervasive public assessment to obscure an intelligent, independent assessment of the facts. This type of assessment is crucial to success in any Chicago personal injury case; don’t settle for anything less in your legal representation.

If you or a loved one has suffered an injury, illness or death, that seems to have been someone else’s fault, call VanDerGinst Law at 1-866-843-7367 or receive a FREE online case evaluation from a Chicago accident attorney. The initial consultation is free of charge. If we agree to handle your injury case, we will work on a contingency fee basis, which means we get paid for our services only if, and when, there is a money recovery for you. In many cases a lawsuit must be filed before an applicable expiration date, known as a statute of limitations. So please call right away to ensure that you do not waive your right to possible compensation.