A woman successfully sued McDonalds for millions of dollars after spilling coffee on herself
This one isn’t really a myth, although the final settlement figure has never been revealed. The reason this case is included here is because it had a significant impact on the public’s perception of personal injury, and many people’s perceptions are based on misunderstanding or missing facts. Many people who can remember the early 1990s will have been aware of this case, if not its facts.
The case of 79-year-old Stella Liebeck who successfully sued McDonalds after she accidently spilt a cup of their coffee on her lap and suffered severe burns in 1992 is notorious. Many news outlets overlooked the critical facts of the case including the 700 other complaints that McDonalds had received to say that the coffee being served was dangerously hot. Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants was held up as an example of an increasingly litigious society, due to many misconceptions surrounding it.
The 2011 HBO documentary Hot Coffee revealed how many people thought Mrs Liebeck was driving when the incident occurred (she was a passenger in her grandson’s car) and thought that she suffered only minor superficial burns. Mrs Liebeck suffered permanent disfigurement and was partially disabled for two years after the incident. A vascular surgeon determined that Mrs Liebeck suffered third-degree burns over six per cent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. She initially sought to settle her claim for $20,000, but McDonalds refused.
A jury awarded Mrs Liebeck $2.7m in punitive damages, which exist in the US to ‘punish’ the wrongdoer. Punitive damages are not available under English law. This figure was reduced by a judge to $480k even though he said he found McDonalds' conduct to be ‘reckless, callous, and wilful’.
The case was eventually settled in secret, for an undisclosed sum.