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McDonald’s Lawsuit & Austin?

You’ve heard about. You know what happened. And you can’t believe it. A woman goes to the McDonald’s drive in, orders coffee, spills it on herself while driving, and then sues and gets $3 million.

As a personal injury lawyer, I’m often asked about the case and oftentimes (like in a conversation this week) asked to defend it.

And the defense is easy. Because this case is the poster child for “fake news” or at least lazy journalism where reporters couldn’t be bothered to report the full story.

Here’s what really happened:

  1. There is a widely agreed upon safe temperature for coffee. If it’s too hot, it can quickly cause third degree burns. (For a link to Austin, the chairman of the department of the UT mechanical engineering department testified at the trial for the injured person about these facts.)
  2. McDonald’s had a policy of keeping its coffee significantly hotter than the safe temperatures.
  3. McDonald’s knew it had a problem. Prior to this case, McDonalds had received over 700 prior claims from people being burned by their coffee. Despite knowing this, they did nothing.
  4. On the day at issue, Stella went to McDonald’s with her son. Stella was the passenger that day.
  5. While in the passenger seat and in the parking lot, Stella held her cup of coffee between her legs to take off the lid and add cream and sugar.
  6. While removing the lid, the cup spilled over and spilled in Stella’s lap.
  7. The coffee was so hot that she suffered third degree burns — the most serious degree — in her lap and groin area.
  8. Stella ultimately required several skin graphs in very sensitive areas.
  9. Stella didn’t want a lawsuit. She asked McDonald’s to pay $20,000.00 to cover her medical expenses. McDonald’s refused and only offered to pay $800.00.
  10. Once she was forced to sue, Stella asked for her personal damages and for punitive damages to punish McDonald’s for not fixing the problem it knew about.
  11. The jury awarded Stella $160,000 for her personal damages (medical bills, pain, mental anguish, etc.).
  12. The real outrage was over the punitive damage award of $2.6 million. But that wasn’t a crazy number either. The jury awarded that much because it represented two days of McDonald’s coffee sales.
  13. Stella never got that much. The law limits punitive damage awards. McDonald’s appealed and Stella got a much smaller confidential settlement.

These are the real facts. This was not a story of a jury going crazy. But it’s the story of a jury that thought a corporation was showing a callous disregard for the safety of others and that needed to teach the corporation a lesson that its conduct was wrong. That’s what our system was designed to do. This was a story of the jury getting it right.

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