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5 misunderstandings concerning Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants

If you're like most people and you were asked to come up with a famous court case from the last 30 years that didn't involve a celebrity, you might think of the lawsuit that was filed against McDonald's in the early '90s when a woman was burned by the fast-food restaurant's hot coffee. Few know it by its legal name, Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, but many know it by its colloquial name, "The McDonald's hot coffee case."

Even though this story is well-known by many, sensationalized news stories at the time and even jokes made on popular shows like Seinfeld gave the story a new life. In the end, the story many people know today might be very different from the situation that actually happened. 

In this look back at the law, we'd like to call attention to five misunderstandings people might have about Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants.

1.  The woman in the case was driving when she spilled her coffee.

While many versions of the McDonald's hot coffee story depict a woman driving away from a McDonald's drive-thru window as she suddenly spills the hot liquid all over herself, this simply wasn't the case for Liebeck who was actually the passenger in a vehicle her grandson was driving. When the coffee spilled, the vehicle was actually parked.

2.  The woman wanted a big payday and only wanted to sue for the sake of suing.

Because the jury awarded Liebeck nearly $2.9 million in restitution, many stories paint her as a money-hungry woman who knew the coffee was hot, but sued anyway to make money off of McDonald's. In truth, Liebeck didn't want to go to court.

Originally, she asked McDonald's to pay for her medical expenses which totaled roughly $20,000. It was only after receiving an $800 settlement offer that McDonald's refused to increase that she decided to hire a lawyer and take matters to court.

3.  The woman should have been more careful; after all, it was hot coffee.

While Liebeck admitted that the spill was her fault, she was likely not expecting the coffee to be as hot as it was. According to reports, the coffee served to her was an incredible 190 degrees Fahrenheit. To put this into perspective, the boiling point of water is 212 degrees Fahrenheit. The third-degree burns she suffered on her legs and groin area nearly killed her, reports explain.

4.  The Mcdonald's hot coffee case was an isolated incident.

Just because Liebeck's case made it to the news doesn't mean her case was the only one. As one article explains, in the 10 years prior to Liebeck's lawsuit, "more than 700 people who were scalded by coffee burns made claims against [McDonald's]." Despite the lawsuits, McDonald's never lowered the coffee's temperature.

5.  Despite suffering a serious trauma, the woman in the case triumphed and ended up with a million-dollar settlement.

Once the jury reached its verdict and decided to award nearly $2.9 million -- $2.7 million according to some sources - many news outlets at the time stopped running follow-up stories on Liebeck, leaving many people to believe that she had triumphed over negligence and received millions for her troubles.

Sadly, a judge lowered Liebeck's settlement to just $640,000, which the judge believed was enough to send a message to McDonald's to change the temperature at which it serves its coffee. As one Vox article points out, the practice of lowering a jury settlement is not uncommon in personal injury lawsuits. The median payout in these types of cases in roughly $55,000.

Know the whole story

Whether you believe the stories about Liebeck that have been told for nearly 25 years or you believe the facts presented in the case, there are many lessons we can learned from this case, the most important of which is that those who suffer injuries because of a another's negligence deserve adequate compensation, not a lowball offer that does not cover the true cost of the victim's injuries. 

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