Thursday, October 16, 2014


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. 


  1. Bravo. :) I love your lawyer posts. It's like getting my "Good Wife" fix on a Thursday.

  2. "First, McDonald's new* damn well"


  3. I can't believe you're a lawyer and don't even now how to spell. You should have your lawyering license revoked. Like yesterday.

    1. LOL - you are just a friend who is teasing her, right? You need to follow up your post with a ;-) so people who read your comment (with a mistake!! "now how") know you are joking around - otherwise someone may mistake you for an angry, nasty, hypocrite :-)

  4. If you haven't already watched this its a great film.
    Very interesting look into this case. If I recall they had featured some other tort reform cases on this documentary.

  5. Love this!

    (ignore those other comments about the spelling, I see you fixed it, but still, there's a way to nicely point out a simple oops).


    Hashtag lawyered.

  7. FINALLY...I am so happy to see someone reference this case who actually knows what they're talking about. Shame on the media AND tort reform for twisting this story and dragging this woman's name through the mud. I was going to reference the documentary but someone beat me to it. :)

  8. I love that you wrote a blog post about this! :) I watched that video that was floating around facebook for a while and was shocked and appalled that I (and most everyone else) never knew the real story!

  9. I watched this on a documentary once and listening to that sweet old lady talk was so heartbreaking. So sad.

    Also, to put it in perspective, as someone who worked as a barista in a coffee shop for years, we would do our normal coffees from 140-150 degrees, and "extra hot" to 180 (only because any more and the milk would boil and then it'd be gross).

  10. My mouth is hanging open reading this. The more you know, indeed. I can honestly say that I didn't know any of these facts, and I'm sure at one point in time, I probably rolled my eyes when someone mentioned this case. Now I feel terrible. That's what I get for ASSuming. Also, this is why I'm not a lawyer.

    In other news that sort of compares to this (people having opinions on things they know nothing about), as a nurse, reading comments that the 2 nurses who contracted Ebola must have gotten in because they were negligent, or took heir gear off properly. If people only new... (haha knew... new! snort)

  11. Wow! I'm totally shocked, and embarrassed, as I never knew the full details of this case and incorrectly assumed that the old lady was an idiot! Now who's the idiot? And this is sadly coming from a 7 year corporate litigation paralegal who HATES how quick people are to point blame without know all the facts! (<>). I'm now interested in watching the documentary. Thanks for educating us, Kelly! (Another lesson learned on ASSuming - loved Marla's comment above!).

    P.S. Long time reader, but first time commenter..."hi"! I always enjoy your legal posts! :)

  12. I'm way behind on blogging... So just reading/commenting now. I love this post. I recently learned about the details of this case and was just shocked by how much it got twisted. Crazy. Good for you for providing such a great post to tell the truth!