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Many years ago a jury awarding a plaintiff millions of dollars over a spilled cup of hot coffee. Certainly a cup of spilled coffee is nothing to sue over, right? On its face such a large award may seem outrageous, but if you take the time to dig into the facts of the case you would find that the injured victim sustained third degree burns, permanent disfigurement, and had to undergo multiple surgeries.

This infamous case was Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants. More than two decades later, the McDonald’s coffee case continues to be used as a prime example of a “frivolous” lawsuit. It also continues to be used to bolster arguments in favor of tort reform.

Tort reform seeks to reduce the rights of injury victims by taking away the victim’s ability to file a lawsuit and/or to reduce or cap the amount of damages a plaintiff can receive. It is lobbying by corporations and insurance companies to avoid their responsibility to the general public for safety.

Consider the following facts in the McDonald’s coffee case:

  • McDonald’s practice was to serve its coffee between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit. This is 20 to 30 degrees hotter than the industry standard, and McDonald’s knew it. In the ten years prior to Stella Liebeck’s case, more than 700 people were scalded by coffee burns and made claims against McDonald’s.
  • A McDonald’s Qualify Control Manager testified that McDonald’s knew of the risk of dangerously hot coffee. But McDonald’s had no plans to decrease the temperature or warn its customers of the scalding danger.
  • It takes two seconds to sustain third degree burns from a liquid at 185 degrees Fahrenheit. McDonald’s knew it was seriously injuring people and it didn’t change its practices.

Limiting financial accountability for corporations and insurance companies is not the answer. Limited injured victim’s access to the court system is not the answer. Lawsuits unfairly characterized as “frivolous” are not frivolous at all. Those lawsuits may be the only way to help the people who are seriously injured by the negligence of a company.

Check out the HBO Documentary Hot Coffee. It “examines the dangers of tort reform using the now infamous legal battle over a spilled cup of McDonald’s Coffee.”

In civil cases for personal injury, the injured party is seeking financial compensation for their medical expenses, lost wages, maybe even pain and suffering or other damages that resulted from their injuries. Sometimes personal injury law comes under criticism by people who may not understand how personal injury lawsuits help accident victims. And sometimes personal injury attorneys come under criticism by people who may not understand that we are advocates for our clients’ rights and we work diligently to hold negligent parties responsible for their actions.

The experienced attorneys of Matthew G. Miller can help you recover fair and just compensation when you have been injured in an accident. Call our office today (402)558-4900 to schedule a free consultation.


Matthew G. Miller was voted Omaha Magazine’s Best of Omaha, as Top 100 Trial Lawyers by The National Trial Lawyers, The Best Lawyers in America, and attorney Matt Miller holds a 10 Superb top attorney Avvo Rating.