The Albuquerque "Hot Coffee Case" Heard Around the World!

Of the hundreds of thousands of McDonald's drive-thrus throughout the world, it's unlikely there is one more famous and steeped with controversy than the one located at 5001 Gibson Boulevard S.E. in Albuquerque, New Mexico (pictured left). And Even if you don't recognize the location, it's very likely you've heard the stories--almost all of them filled with inaccuracies, half-truths, and outright lies--about what happened here.

It was February 27, 1992 when a 79-year-old grandmother named Stella Liebeck would accidentally spill a portion of her McDonald's take-out coffee on herself. She sued McDonalds and was awarded nearly $3 million in punitive damages. Soon after she would be portrayed in a large number of media circles as "greedy," "clumsy," "an example of what's wrong with our country," and "a complete joke." To this day, many people still hold those insults to be true, leaving them to serve as her lasting legacy.

As unflattering news stories continued to mount, and big corporations worked to re-write the facts, a rally cry for tort reform echoed across the country. Soon, personal injury lawyers everywhere were forced to defend themselves from a carefully orchestrated witch hunt that further solidified peoples' stereotypes of attorneys as "ambulance-chasers." 

Here are some common opinions followed by things no one probably told you.

"It's her own fault, trying to drive and drink her coffee at the same time."  

Maybe there's an argument there, but that's not what happened.

The famous assumption many people continue to hold is that Stella was driving her car and spilled the coffee as a result of distracted driving. This couldn't be further from the truth. Stella was actually a passenger in a car that had been driven to the McDonalds by her grandson. After they received their order from the drive-thru, the grandson pulled into a parking space and brought the car to a complete stop before the accident occurred. With the coffee braced between her legs, Stella attempted to remove the cheap, flimsy lid so that she could add cream and sugar. As she pulled the lid the cup pulled back with it, spilling the entire cup of coffee between her legs.

"It's her fault, everyone knows coffee is served hot."

Sure, but should coffee be served so hot that if spilled would require a person to receive multiple skin grafts? WARNING: Please be warned that the image at the following link is VERY graphic in nature and may be disturbing to some, however, it does illustrate the type of burns Stella received: Stella's burn pictures. Be honest, did you ever imagine the burns to look that bad? Probably not.

Second, before Stella's injury, McDonalds was aware of more than 700 similar incidents involving burns to customers from coffee spills. In fact, it was McDonalds policy to serve coffee at excessively hot temperatures that had been known to cause serious burns, including third-degree, in mere seconds after having made contact with a person's skin. Despite continuing complaints (10+ year's worth) and documentation of customers receiving severe burns from coffee spills, McDonalds remained indifferent to the problem and continued to serve a hot drink at extreme temperature levels. 

One of the jurors said it best when asked about McDonalds attitude toward the 700+ people that had been burned:

“there was a person behind every number and I don’t think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that.”

"It was a get rich quick scheme."

Not even close. Stella had approached McDonalds and asked that she be reimbursed for her medical bills and lost wages she incurred during her many surgeries and extended hospitalization. McDonalds offered her $800. After being presented with a mountain of evidence that suggested McDonalds may want to examine the manner in which they serve their coffee, they essentially said, "we're not changing a thing."

The jury then placed partial fault with Stella for her injuries, reducing the amount of her overall compensatory settlement; however, the jury's larger award for punitive damages was the focus of the media's attention. The jury essentially awarded Stella an amount that equaled two days' worth of sales from McDonald's coffee sales.

(Most people assumed that was the end of the story, but it wasn't. The fact is that the judge presiding over the case believed that McDonalds had engaged in "willful, wanton, and reckless behavior," but still decided that Stella would receive less than 20% of the punitive damage's total. Knowing that there would likely be a lengthy appeals process, Stella and McDonalds eventually agreed to a confidential settlement.)

An eye-opening documentary, appropriately named "Hot Coffee," was recently filmed that delves deeper into all of the facts surrounding 

Because Keller & Keller is an Albuquerque-based injury law firm, we've always taken special interest in Stella's story. It's a case that undoubtedly continues to shape the opinions of people who've never been injured, never required a personal injury lawyer's help, yet look at the profession with grave suspicion.

We accept a very small number of cases when compared to the large volume of calls received, and we're aware of how clients and callers can sometimes be made to feel guilty about possibly suing a large insurance company. That said, it has always been our belief that until the accident or injury hits close to home, as it did for the severely burned Stella Liebeck, no one is in a position to say with certainty what they would or wouldn't do, nor what is right or wrong for someone else. 

Andy Ray
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