The Case of the “Millionaire” Plaintiff

The Case of the “Millionaire” Plaintiff

It’s probably a safe bet that the most famous product liability claim in U.S. history is the McDonald’s coffee claim. Not only did this set off a wave of anti-plaintiff sentiment across the country, it came at a time when insurance companies were trumpeting propaganda about out of control jury awards. The media mishandling of this case further fueled the fires of Tort Reform.

Even though the truth of the matter was finally made public in 2011, it’s amazing the number of people who still think that poor Stella Liebeck, the 79 year old plaintiff, made a mint from McDonald’s by spilling her coffee. In the interest of honesty, and in support of innocent plaintiffs everywhere who bear the stigma resulting from standing up for their rights, we’re spilling the beans on this famous coffee case.

The basics of the case went something like this: Mrs. Liebeck ordered coffee at McDonalds. She placed the cup of coffee between her knees to steady it while adding cream and sugar and it spilled. At that point, Mrs. Liebeck suffered third-degree burns on her thighs, groin, and buttocks. According to most media outlets, the next event was a multi-million dollar verdict and Mrs. Liebeck cooling her heels atop a pile of money.

Nothing could be farther than the truth. She spent seven days in the hospital undergoing multiple skin grafts to repair the damage, leaving her with nearly $200,000 in medical bills. The 79 year old Mrs. Liebeck didn’t even want to sue McDonald’s; however, the corporation’s refusal to help cover her medical bills prompted her change of heart. Originally, she only asked for $20,000 to cover some of the bills.

Even though most restaurants heated their coffee to 160F, McDonald’s chose to heat theirs to 190F. It was reported that liquid this hot is capable of removing human skin in two seconds. In fact, the mega-corporation fielded more than 700 claims of burns due to hot coffee before Mrs. Liebeck’s. Over $500,000 in settlements were paid out to cover these other claims.

Even McDonald’s quality assurance manager admitted on the stand that the company was aware of the potential for injury, yet didn’t intend to do anything about it. So crass were McDonald’s representatives, that they blamed Mrs. Liebeck for her injuries stating that she didn’t remove her pants quickly enough to avoid being burned. They further stated that her age was part of the cause of her injuries because older people have thinner skin. Yet, the corporation offered a “Senior Discount” on its coffee.

The jury sided with Mrs. Liebeck. They believed McDonald’s engaged in willful, reckless and malicious conduct and awarded Mrs. Liebeck $2.7 in punitive damages, the equivalent of two days of coffee sales. However, McDonald’s appealed the award and the judge lowered it to $480,000. Once Mrs. Liebeck paid her medical bills, her attorney’s fees, and costs, the “Millionaire Plaintiff” was left with very little; probably enough to buy, well, a cup of coffee.

The Law Offices of Brent W. Caldwell, located in Huntington Beach, represent plaintiffs in product liability cases, in addition to other personal injury claims. We won’t let mega-corporations deny you compensation for injuries they caused.

A free case evaluation is available by calling us at (714) 625-8914, or completing a contact form at

Postscript: (7/1/2013) A 54-year-old Florida man is seeking damages from McDonald’s Corporation in a lawsuit filed in Hackensack, New Jersey, claiming that he suffered serious burns from a spilled cup of hot coffee while dining at a McDonald’s in River Edge