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Legal Misconceptions

The Stella Awards and the Hot Coffee Case

We've all been there. You open your email and your friend has sent you a forward titled "Stella Awards." Unfortunately, many people read these things and think they are real! These emails are entire fabrication, except Stella Liebeck’s case of course. The insurance industry and other corporations made up these lies around 2004 and have been re-circulating them ever since. These cases simply do not exist.

It makes a lot of sense if you actually stop to think about it. Do you think 6 of your friends, relatives and neighbors would make the awards this email is suggesting in a trial? Do you think these cases would ever make it to a jury?  Of course not, however, the impetus behind those emails has become a matter of Americana and has become twisted by the insurance industry.  The truth about the McDonald's coffee burn case has become mangled so much that there has even been a movie made about it called “Hot Coffee.”  See the trailer here.  If you want the truth, read below. 

Here are the real facts about the Stella Liebeck v. McDonald's case:

With over $11,000 in medical bills and McDonald's insurance company offering $800 to Stella, she sued them.  Despite what  the insurance industry has claimed, she was not driving herself and was actually parked and sitting still when the Styrofoam cup crumpled in her lap due to the extreme heat it was under.  McDonald's produced documents showing over 700 claims by people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some claims involved third-degree burns similar to Stella’s. This proved McDonald's knowledge about the extent and nature of this hazard. McDonald's also claimed that, based on a consultants advice, it held its coffee temperature between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain optimum taste without refreshing the pot = saves $. He admitted that he had not evaluated the safety ramifications at this temperature. For the record, most places sell coffee at much lower temperatures, and at home it is generally 135 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

McDonald's quality assurance manager testified that the company actively enforces a requirement that coffee be held in the pot at 185 degrees, plus or minus five degrees. He said that a burn hazard exists with any food substance served at 140 degrees or above, and that McDonald's coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into Styrofoam cups, was not fit for human consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat. The quality assurance manager admitted that burns did occur, but testified that McDonald's had no intention of reducing the "holding temperature" of its coffee.

During trial, a scholar in thermodynamics applied to human skin burns, testified that liquids, at 180 degrees, will cause a full thickness burn to human skin in 2 to 7 seconds. But, as the temperature decreases toward 155 degrees, the extent of the burn relative to that temperature decreases exponentially.  This allows for around 30 seconds before full thickness burn. So, if Stella's spill had involved coffee at 155 degrees, the liquid would have cooled and given her time to avoid a serious burn.

The damages were awarded by 6 people (just like you, me, your brother and your mother) who had a plan and were really angry. They awarded punitive damages based on 2 days worth of McDonald's worldwide sales from coffee alone (millions per day). You can see why McDonald's wouldn’t change the temperature after 700 people were burned, they made billions cranking up the heat!

The jury awared $200,000.00 in compensatory damages for her pain and the $2.7 million was reduced by a judge to around $600,000.00.  Ultimately, Stella settled the lawsuit for around $500,000.00.

The bottom line, don't believe everything you read and think about the source of the information when you get it.

If you want to read more about these bogus emails, check out:

www.moneytalksnews.com/2011/01/13/the-stella-awards-truth-or-fiction/

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