Legal Misconceptions

Stella Award And Hot Coffee Case Lies

We’ve all been there. You open your email and your friend has sent you a forward titled “Stella Awards” with fake court cases in them.  Unfortunately, many people read these things and think they are real!  If you want to read more about these bogus emails, check out: this.  These emails are entire an entire fabrication, except Stella Liebeck’s case of course. Where that case gets butchered is on the facts.  The insurance industry, some associations and other corporations made up these lies (Stella Awards) around 2004 and have circulated them via email ever since.  In addition to that, after the Liebeck verdict they set about spreading lies about what really happened in the ‘Hot Coffee” Case.

It makes a lot of sense if you actually stop to think about it.  Do you think 6 of your friends, relatives and neighbors would make the awards this email is suggesting in a trial? Do you think these cases would ever make it to a jury? Of course not.  The truth about the McDonald’s coffee burn case has become mangled so much that there has even been a movie made about it called “Hot Coffee” – just to set the record straight. See the trailer here.  Others have discussed the Hot Coffee case as well and This is one of our favorites.

Here are the real facts about the Stella Liebeck v. McDonald’s case: With around $20,000 in medical bills and McDonald’s insurance company offering $800 to Stella, she sued them.  Despite what the insurance industry has claimed, she was not driving herself and was actually parked and sitting still when the Styrofoam cup crumpled in her lap due to the extreme heat it was under.  McDonald’s produced evidence documenting more than 700 claims by people burned by its coffee, some with serious third-degree burns like the ones suffered by Stella, between 1982 and 1992. This proved McDonald’s knew about the extent and hazardous nature of serving coffee at such an extreme temperature. McDonald’s also stated that it maintained its coffee temperature around 190 degrees Fahrenheit to allow for maximum taste without needing to refresh the pot significantly. The consultant who recommended keeping coffee at this temperature admitted that he had not considered the safety of serving coffee at this temperature.  For the record, most places sell coffee at much lower temperatures and at home it is generally 135 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that the company enforces a rule that coffee be held at dangerously high temperatures. He said that a burn hazard exists with any food served at 140 degrees or above, and that McDonald’s coffee, was not fit for human consumption at its required serving temperature because it would burn the mouth and throat. Though burns occurred, the quality assurance manager  testified that McDonald’s had no plans to reduce its coffee temperature.

During trial, an expert in thermodynamics as they relate to human skin burns, testified that liquids measured at 180 degrees will cause a severe burns to human skin in 2 to 7 seconds. This allows for around 30 seconds of contact before a full thickness burn. So if Stella’s spill had involved coffee served 30 to 35 degrees cooler than the required holding temperature, the liquid would have cooled faster and given her time to address the spill before incurring serious harm.

The damages were awarded by 6 people (just like you, me, our family and friends) who had a plan and were really angry.  They awarded punitive damages based on 2 days worth of McDonald’s sales from coffee alone (profits were around 1.35 million dollar per day).  You can see why McDonald’s wouldn’t change the temperature after 700 people were burned, they made billions cranking up the heat!

The jury awarded $200,000.00 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages all of which was reduced by a judge to around $600,000.00.  Ultimately, Stella settled the lawsuit for around $500,000.00.  The bottom line, don’t believe everything you read and think about the source of the information when you get it.