Truth About McDonald’s Coffee Spill Case in Five Minutes

Several former students sent me this video of Adam Ruins Everything’s explanation of the infamous McDonald’s coffee spill case.  They thanked me for telling them the truth in Torts about the grossly distorted case.  I actually stopped talking about it a few years ago, but may need to bring it back because the distorted view still seems prevalent.  I guess we could call it an early form of “fake news.”  Unfortunately, it was all too real for poor Stella Liebeck.

The video does a great job, in a humorous way, of summarizing key points, including: (1) Stella was a 79-year-old passenger in a parked car when she accidentally spilled the coffee on herself (not driving while trying to add cream and sugar); (2) She initially sought only a small amount from McDonald’s for her medical expenses (not a greedy, litigious person); (3) She suffered third-degree burns that her doctor said was the one of the worst cases he had ever seen; (4) The temperature of the coffee was around 190 degrees; (5) Evidence at trial showed 700 prior McDonald’s coffee burn instances; (6) McDonald’s own witness testified the coffee was a hazard at the temperature it was served; (7) The $2.7 million verdict was mostly punitive damages, which the jury calculated by awarding what testimony showed would equal two days worth of McDonald’s coffee sales; and (8) The damages award was reduced by the trial court so that, in the end, Stella only received about $600,000 (of which her lawyer probably received a third, plus expenses).

Only thing missing to drive the point home that this case was anything but frivolous is an image of Stella’s horrific injuries from a spilled cup of coffee, which we included in previous mentions of the case here and here.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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