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A look back at the McDonald’s coffee spill

Many probably remember the "McDonald's coffee spill" that literally shocked the world twenty years ago. Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants became one of the most talked about defective product cases in history. And Mrs. Liebeck became the brunt of jokes on talk-radio, sitcoms, late night television, and even country music.

However, what has escaped most Americans over the past 20 years is that the facts of this case were so distorted that lies have become ingrained truths and poor old Mrs. Liebeck has become the anti-martyr. To say that Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants is the most misunderstood lawsuit in American history is a gross understatement of epic proportions.

Ask anyone over 30 and most will tell you they know the basic facts: a lady from New Mexico spilled McDonald's coffee on herself while she was driving her car and then successfully sued McDonald's for millions, claiming their coffee was too hot. This is hardly any semblance of the truth.

The facts are that the then 79-year-old Mrs. Liebeck was sitting in the passenger side of a parked car in a McDonald's parking lot right after her grandson drove her through the restaurant's drive-up window for a late breakfast. She attempted to open the coffee and add cream and sugar when the coffee spilled and caused utterly horrific 3rd degree burns that she could have died from and required immediate skin graft surgery to repair.

As the medical bills began adding up, Mrs. Liebeck, her family, and her attorney wrote a letter asking McDonald's to pay her medical expenses and to reduce the temperature of their coffee, which was served 30-40 degrees hotter than a typical home coffee maker, for the sake of future customers. In response, McDonald's offered Mrs. Liebeck $800. The case eventually went to trial where a jury found McDonald's 80% responsible for the accident and awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages, but then reduced that amount to $160,000. In addition, the jury initially awarded Mrs. Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages to be paid for by McDonald's. This amount was calculated by figuring how much McDonald's Restaurants makes in two days of coffee sales. However, the $2.7 million was eventually reduced by the judge to $480,000. An appeal by both sides ensued and Mrs. Liebeck and McDonald's eventually settled for an amount less than $600,000. When all was said and done, Mrs. Liebeck ended up with about $500,000 and McDonald's reduced the temperature at which they serve their coffee by only ten degrees.

What perhaps is most enlightening, that very few people realize, is that McDonald's, from 1982 to 1992, received over 700 complaints about the temperature of their coffee and had paid out over $500,000 in damages. However, McDonald's public relations department and the media politicized the events that took place and cast aside the truth for corporate-kind tort reform.

Source: Gawker, "The Truth Behind the Most Widely Misunderstood Story in America" 22 October 2013

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