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You might be wrong about the McDonald's coffee lawsuit

Remember the story of the woman in the early 1990s who spilled coffee on herself and won half a million dollars from McDonald's in a personal injury lawsuit? The account draws strong emotions from people and is often blamed for the start a "sue happy" America.

How could a woman who was so careless get so much money for her injury? A recent episode of the online show Adam Ruins Everything has put the case back in the news again. The rare result of the 1994 lawsuit gives us a glimpse into the current state of personal injury in the U.S.

Trouble brewing

To recount the case, a 79-year old woman in Albuquerque, New Mexico spilled 190-degree coffee on herself while seated as a passenger in a parked car. The woman admitted the spill was her fault, but she thought the brewed coffee she was given was too hot to consume.

She suffered third-degree burns on her legs as a result of the spill, totaling $20,000 in medical bills. The woman did not want to take McDonald's to court. She was only seeking payment for her medical bills. When McDonald's offered her just $800, she filed a personal injury lawsuit two years after sustaining the burns.

As it turns out, McDonald's had received 700 complaints about the temperature of their coffee before the lawsuit but continued the practice. In brewing science, the hotter water allows more brewed coffee to be extracted out of the grounds, allowing McDonald's to sell more cups with fewer beans.

The case percolates

Her attorney suggested that McDonald's handling of her case, and prior complaints, was so egregious that she should ask for nearly three million dollars. The parties settled on a payout of half a million dollars, and McDonald's changed its brewing practices.

Although many people think that the big payout led to an increase in personal injury lawsuits, the number of cases has declined in recent decades. The median payout is now $55,000, ten times less than the woman received as a result of the spill.

Burn injuries are not even in the top five causes of personal injury lawsuits in the U.S. Instead, vehicle accidents, slips and falls, medical malpractice, injuries at work and bicycle accidents are the most likely cases to result in a lawsuit. Many things can cause us worry and harm throughout our lives and the public's crying over spilled coffee is not one of them.

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