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Why an elderly woman sued McDonald’s over its super-hot coffee


31 years ago, an extraordinary court battle was launched after an elderly woman suffered serious burns after she spilled a cup of Mcdonald's coffee on her lap.

Stella Liebeck was 79 when the incident happened in 1992.

Many people viewed the case as the worst kind of pointless litigation.


But was it?

Ms Liebeck, who died in 2004, suffered third-degree burns to 16 percent of her body and was burnt through her clothes.

The coffee was so hot it burned her skin away to the layers of muscle and fatty tissue.

She spent eight days in hospital and needed skin grafts.

It took two years for her to fully recover.

She sued the company, offering to settle for $20,000 to cover her medical costs.

However, McDonald's refused, offering her just $800 - not even close to covering her medical costs.

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What happened in the case?

During the case, jurors were shown graphic images of Ms Liebeck's burns.

Experts revealed McDonald's coffee was 30-40 degrees hotter than in other companies.

It was also revealed 700 other people, including children, had been burned.

The company had not changed its policy of keeping its coffee between 180 and 190 degrees.

It was said the company had compared the number of burns compared to the billions of cups sold a year and deemed them to be insignificant.

Kenneth Wagner, an Albuquerque lawyer who represented Liebeck, said: "We knew, before the lawsuit was filed, that the temperature of the water was 190 degrees or so, and the franchise documents required that of the franchisee.

"Most home coffee makers produce coffee that is between 135 and 150 degrees."

He said 190-degree coffee causes third-degree burns in three seconds.

Arguments raged over the case, with some outlets saying people know hot coffee can cause burns and that McDonald's was being unfairly penalized.

However, it was successfully argued that there was no indication as to just how hot the coffee was.

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What was the result?

Let's just say McDonald's wasn't exactly "Loving It."

Ms Liebeck had only asked for $20,000.

She was initially awarded $200,000 in damages, which was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found her 20 percent at fault.

But the company was also ordered to pay her $2.7 million in punitive damages for McDonald's behavior over the case.

This was reduced again to $480,000, and both parties ended up entering a post-verdict settlement.

The fast-food giant subsequently changed the temperature of its coffee after the lawsuit.

“I was not in it for the money,” Liebeck said at the time. “I was in it because I want them to bring the temperature down so that other people wouldn’t go through the same thing I did.”

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