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hen a person goes against a big corporation, everyone will support the person as they have most likely been taken advantage of by the corporation one way or another. Huge corporations such as McDonald’s are known to have quite a malicious corporate culture but in this case, I think it may just be the other way around.

Some say that the only way to get rich is by either opening a great business or winning the lottery, but there is a lot of people who became rich by suing companies. The Stella Liebeck versus McDonald’s case had become very famous in the 90s and it was discussed worldwide. Even to this day, many people say that McDonald’s should have won the case and for legitimate reasons.

Just another coffee from McDonald’s

On the 27th of February 1992, Stella Liebeck was with her grandson in his car and they decided to go to McDonald’s drive-thru service to get lunch. Liebeck only wanted a normal coffee which she took from the server and placed the cup between her legs as she was paying. Once her grandson drove away from the premises, he stopped so that Liebeck could add sugar and cream to the coffee. When she opened the lid, Liebeck spilled the coffee over her, causing 3rd degree burns over 16% of her body (mainly the lower part of the torso).

3rd Degree burns are a very serious matter, as they go through the skin tissue and can cause major health complications, especially for an old lady at the age of 79. Layback had multiple medical interventions in the two weeks that she received hospitalization. During these two her medical bill came to a total of $13,000 and with the medication, she required it would only go up. Nevertheless, she also required more medical procedures because at her age the skin was having difficulties healing.

After she got better, she decided that she will not make a lawsuit out of this and simply ask Mcdonald’s for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses. McDonald’s only offered her $800, enough only to cover a fraction of the medical costs. Near the end of 1992, Liebeck took all her money to hire the best lawyer and sue McDonald’s for serving extremely hot coffee

Is there such a thing as coffee being too hot?

The trial took place from the 8th of August until the 17th of August 1994. McDonald’s was very evident as documents had uncovered that between the years 1982–1983 there had been over 700 settlements totaling in at over $500,000 for individuals burning themselves with McDonald’s 88 °C (190 °F) coffee which was also testified to cause third-degree burns within the short span of 15 seconds.

Liebeck’s lawyer used the argument that most home coffee makers make coffee between 54°C to 60°C (135°F and 150°F) hot. McDonald’s army of lawyers came back stating that any drink over the temperature of 54°C (135°F) can cause 3rd-degree burns so it would not make much of a difference.

From a more logical perspective, if you get a hot drink and you see steam coming out of the cup, you wait until it cools down. Liebeck spilling the drink was pretty much her fault, this could have happened with a homemade coffee, but it would not surprise me to see her suing the maker of the coffee maker or even the maker of the cup.

The idea is that at 88 °C (190 °F), you would have 3 seconds to wipe the coffee before it causes 3rd-degree burns. At 54°C (135°F) You have almost a full minute. I believe that this is more of a case where people simply need to be more careful with hot stuff rather than changing the temperature consumed on a daily basis by millions of people around the world that somehow manage to not spill their coffee.

Fair Trial?

McDonald’s coffee isn’t fit for consumption right after purchase, it needs to be cooled down. The lawsuit was won by Liebeck on the premise that McDonald’s should make their consumers aware that the coffee isn’t fit for consumption right after purchase and also informing them that the coffee is hot.

She was given $160,000 dollars for compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. After this, Liebeck became famous around the world. Every media outlet was debating her case as some thought this was a plan for her to get rich of a big corporation. Her life although much better with so much money, wasn’t very fun as she was getting death threats right on her doorstep. People screaming that she does not deserve the money.

Even to this day, many courts around the world think that Liebeck should have lost that case. In a book entitled “The True Stella Awards” written by Randy Cassingham, the author describes how Liebeck’s case was the start of compensation culture within the juridical world. Courts in the western world use the term Stella Award for cases that are simply outrageous and clearly only for profits.

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