Hot Coffee Burns, Tapwater Doesn’t

I drink water. Whether I am running, eating out at a restaurant, or enjoying dinner at home, I drink water. Usually from the tap. It’s not that I don’t occasionally enjoy a smoothie, or a sports drink, or sometimes even a carbonated beverage, I just really like water. But I have some friends who do what they can to avoid drinking water. One drinks two liters of Coke a day. Another drinks eight glasses of milk. Yet another drinks four cups of coffee. Scalding, burning hot coffee.

Here, have a drink of near-boiling liquid. Careful so you don’t scar your insides. And, under no circumstances should you splash that cup into your boyfriend’s face when you break up. You could end up in prison. Clearly, I don’t fully understand the allure of the king of hot drinks.

But, Stella Liebeck did. She became a household name when a jury awarded her a princely sum of money for her hot coffee injuries. One day, Stella ordered a cup of coffee at McDonald’s and accidentally spilled it one her lap while she was sitting as a passenger in the car. I want to remind you, drive-thru eating was a relatively new invention at that time. Coffee kiosks didn’t even exist. Anyway, Stella was hospitalized because of the seriousness of the burns. For 8 days, doctors repaired the burns, which affected 16% of her skin, mainly on her lap. Due to her age and health, Mrs. Liebeck continued to receive treatment for 2 years. This was a fairly substantial injury.

About two years later, a jury awards her $2.9 million because of the burns she received from the piping hot beverage. A jury had determined that McDonald’s was negligent in the way they served hot coffee to Stella. By 1994, this story had flooded newspapers, magazines, and broadcasts worldwide, mainly because people were amazed at size of the award in this seemingly frivolous lawsuit.

The facts paint a much different picture. Stella was willing to settle for medical expenses and lost wages before a lawsuit was filed, and a judge ended up reducing the award by 80%, but McDonald’s wouldn’t see her side of the story. For instance, a quick reference guide shows that 100-degree water is safe to bathe in, and 155-degree water causes third-degree burns within one second. In 1992, at the time of Stella’s injury, it was McDonald’s company policy to serve coffee at 180-190 degrees. To people traveling in cars. I’m sort of thinking that it should be served in some sort of bomb-proof box. But that’s just me. I drink regular tapwater, and sometimes I add ice. Anyway, McDonald’s effectively said, we gave you what you wanted and offered her $800 for her inconvenience. And a jury and judge disagreed.

Things have come a long way since then. Cups are better, cars have better holders, and most of the lawsuits these days revolve around actually pouring hot coffee on drivers or giving steaming joe to 4-year-old children. And I’m sure everyone agrees that it’s negligent to give hot coffee to a 4 year old, right? Unless you order it at kids’ temperature.

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