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The McDonalds Coffee Case 20 Years Later – Why Is It Still Relevant

Published at July 7, 2014 by administrator.

In 1992, an elderly woman became involved in an accident that would forever impact personal injury cases filed in the U.S. This woman, Stella Liebeck, was severely burned after a McDonald’s coffee was spilled on her legs. The elderly woman had purchased the coffee at the McDonald’s drive-thru and had parked in the lot after receiving the coffee. She held the coffee cup between her knees and suffered from burns when the coffee spilled on her knees.

After Ms. Liebeck became injured as a result of the coffee spill, she filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s Corporation. The case, Liebeck vs. McDonald’s, raised the question of whether corporate drive-thru restaurants could be held liable for negligence for offering drinks at extremely high temperatures.

The Public Becomes Concerned About Drive-Thru Corporate Policies

During the discovery phase of Ms. Liebeck’s lawsuit, attorneys revealed that McDonald’s had a corporate policy of maintaining its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees. Evidence also indicated that Ms. Liebeck was forced to remain in a hospital for eight days after receiving burns. Medical professionals found that Ms. Liebeck suffered from third degree burns due to the coffee spill.

Advocates for plaintiffs’ rights argue that tort laws should be reformed to hold corporations accountable for their policies. In Ms. Liebeck’s case, McDonald’s quality assurance managers testified that the company maintained its coffee at a temperature that posed a serious risk to the public. McDonald’s also admitted that it had been aware of the serious risk that this posed to the public for over 10 years.

Judges Hold Corporations Accountable

After the Liebeck case, judges across the U.S. began to hold corporations accountable for their failure to act in the best interest of customers. Consumer advocacy groups have been successful in impacting the ways in which companies function. These groups have been able to impact the types of ingredients that corporations use to produce foods.

The Liebeck case also continues to be relevant for determining the apportionment of damages in personal injury cases. In her case, Ms. Liebeck was held partially liable for the injuries that she suffered. As a result, her damages were reduced by the amount of her own negligence.

Consumers who are injured due to the harmful practices of corporations should hold them accountable for these practices. State laws may vary in their approach to the determination of a corporation’s fault. Some states may impose harsh penalties on companies like McDonald’s that maintain policies posing an unreasonable risk of harm to consumers, while other states may not have any penalties for such companies.

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