Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, 1995 WL 360309 (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. August 18, 1994)

79-year-old Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was sitting in the passenger seat when her grandson drove through a McDonald’s drive-thru. Liebeck ordered coffee that was served in a McDonald’s cup. After receiving the order, the grandson pulled his car forward and stopped for his grandmother to add sugar and cream to her coffee.

While parked, Ms. Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup. As she attempted to remove the lid, the contents of the cup spilled onto her lap, causing her serious burns.

A vascular surgeon diagnosed Liebeck as having suffered full third-degree burns over her inner thighs, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. As a result, Liebeck was hospitalized for eight days during which time she underwent skin grafting, and debridement treatments.

Due to the incident, Liebeck was permanently disfigured and disabled for two years.

Prior to filing suit, Liebeck contacted McDonald’s and requested payment for her medical expenses which were around $11,000. McDonald’s declined to pay.

Liebeck brought suit against McDonald’s alleging that the coffee she purchased was defective because of its excessive heat and because of inadequate warnings.

At trial, McDonald’s argued that Liebeck contributed to her own injuries by placing the coffee cup between her legs and by not removing her clothing promptly after the spill. Further, McDonald’s claimed that the severe nature of the burns suffered by Liebeck were worse than would usually have been sustained because of her older skin making her more vulnerable to more serious injuries than others.

The jury found that McDonald’s was liable on the claims of product defect, breach of the implied warranty of merchantability, and breach of the implied warranty of fitness for particular purpose. As a result, an award of $200,000 in compensatory damages was issued. However, the award was reduced in proportion to Liebeck’s fault which was placed at 20%. The jury also found that Liebeck’s injury warranted punitive damages and awarded $2.7 million based on its finding of willful, reckless, malicious, or wanton conduct on the part of McDonald’s. The $2.7 million in punitive damages was later reduced to a rate of three times the compensatory damages.

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