It has become the epitome of what Americans believe to be the frivolous lawsuit: spilling hot coffee on yourself and then suing. The “hot coffee case” was made by famous by Stella Liebeck when she sued McDonald’s when she burned herself after spilling a cup of their coffee on herself. When she won, Americans found it hard to fathom how someone could win such a lawsuit after they spilled the coffee on themselves, especially considering we have almost all spilled coffee on ourselves at some point. In fact, Toby Keith highlighted the surprise in his song “American Ride.”
But, there are a lot of misconceptions about these hot coffee cases and especially about the figurehead case of Liebeck v. McDonald’s, which landed Stella Liebeck close to three million dollars.
For starters, most hot coffee that is consumed by Americans is between 130-150 degrees Fahrenheit, which is still enough to make us cringe from taking a tiny sip and it burning our tongue. McDonald’s coffee, as well as numerous other fast food chains, serve their coffee around 180 degrees, which is about 30 degrees under boiling. Given the difference in what we are typically used to and comparing that to the increase in temperature by fast food chains shows why some find hot coffee cases hard to believe. Many do not imagine the difference when hearing about these hot coffee cases.
Another misconception is that these are just garden-variety burns that just require a little aloe vera and a band-aid. It could not be further from the truth. Hot coffee cases arise out of second and third-degree burns to the victims. In fact, Mrs. Liebeck was burned on nearly 20% of her body, and in some places burned all the way to the bone.
Next, many believe Stella Liebeck, and other hot coffee victims, immediately tried to sue for millions of dollars. Also, INCORRECT. Mrs. Liebeck simply requested for her medical bills to be paid, which was only $20,000. McDonald’s blew off Mrs. Liebeck and forced her into a trial after McDonald’s refused to settle, at which point the jury hit McDonald’s for over two million dollars in punitive damages (money that Mrs. Liebeck had not even requested).
These cases come down to what we expect when we order coffee. We expect something we are capable of drinking. We expect something that may be hot, but not so hot that it is not incapable of immediate consumption. We certainly do not expect that the cup of coffee we have just been handed in the drive-thru is actually so hot that it can cause third-degree burns on our body, including burning our bodies all the way to down to the bone. At the time of Mrs. Liebeck’s case, McDonald’s was making over a million dollars a day on coffee alone. It is hardly fair for an average American citizen to have to foot the medical bills after they were handed a cup of lava, when all they really wanted was a cup of coffee.
While many people believe these are at the forefront of the abuse of our tort system, the view is slightly off base. Hot coffee cases stem from serious injuries caused by a violation of our expectations by the fast food restaurants we count on to serve us. That is why we should not shun hot coffee victims, and instead should not be holding them entirely accountable for the restaurant’s violation of their trust, especially when they expected something much cooler than they were going to be served.