We need to talk.
I have a lot of feelings about this subject that have boiled over (pun intended?) the last week because for whatever reason, I've had several people reference it.
It's the bane of every personal injury attorney lawyer's existence.
It's the motherfucking "McDonald's Coffee Case."
So, before you go spewing your ignorance on the world and cite this case as indicative of everything that's wrong with America, let me edumacate you. (This information is all also widely available from The Google, but.. here's my PSA).
1. THE FACTS: It's 1992. A 79 year old woman spills coffee in her lap trying to remove the lid to add cream and sugar while PARKED as a passenger in a car. The coffee is SO hot, that within 3-7 seconds, she receives 3rd degree burns over 6% of her body (lesser burns on 16%) that required many extensive and painful surgeries, including 2 skin grafts.
2. SETTLEMENT TALKS: (In looking up this portion of the case to get the numbers right, I typed in "McDonald's Coffee Case" to The Google, which was still set on 'images' after retrieving the above image, and now I CAN NEVER UN-SEE WHAT I SAW. BE WARNED). The Plaintiff tried to get McDonald's to settle this case for TWENTY THOUSAND DOLLARS for her past and future medical and loss of income. that's it. $20,000. They said "what about $800 instead?" No dice.
3. TRIAL: Evidence at trial shows several damning things: First, McDonald's knew damn well, and had been told many times, their coffee was too. effing. hot. and that it did not need to be kept at that temperature. By 1992 they had received 700 complaints and settled several cases for $500,000. There is evidence that lowering it from 190 degrees [which is what it was the day of the accident] to 160 degrees meant burns wouldn't set in until about 12-15 seconds of contact with skin instead of 3-7. The extra time would've allowed more time to remove clothing/coffee from contact with skin.
4. THE MOST IMPORTANT PART FOR YOUR NEW COCKTAIL PARTY INFORMATION: The Plaintiff only received $200,000 in compensatory damages for her injuries, which was reduced to $160,000 by comparative fault. They found her 20% at fault. Compensatory means the money compensated her for her actual loss- time off work, medical, pain and suffering.
The jury then awarded $2.7 MILLION in PUNITIVE DAMAGES. Stop here. Let's discuss. The bulk of this money was awarded to PUNISH McDonald's for failing to heed complaints and warnings about the dangerous nature of their product. (Keep in mind, this lil' ol' lady would've settled for $20,000.) This number was based on a suggestion from Plaintiff's attorney to award damages in the amount of McDonald's coffee sales for a DAY OR TWO. That's right- they make $1.3 MILLION a DAY in coffee sales alone. Still want to throw the woman with a BURNED CROTCH under the bus?
5. THE THING THAT NOBODY KNOWS: the judge reduced the jury's punitive damages verdict to $480,000. This decision was appealed by both parties and then settled out for court for an undisclosed amount LESS THAN $600,000.
This case was still touted as the poster child for the need for tort reform and certainly resulted in a lot of commentary.. but nothing drives me battier than when people flippantly cite to this case as evidence of one thing or another without a solid understanding of what happened.
The more you know, folks.