It is arguably one of the best known personal injury cases in history and, 30 years on, still one of the most misunderstood.

Even now, the McDonald's "hot coffee" case is a byword for a so-called 'claims culture' and wrongly attributed as the reason why takeaway cups are emblazoned with a 'caution: contents hot' warning (the message actually pre-dates the fateful spillage).

Like most of these culture-defining events it happened in the United States, but its misconceptions have tainted attitudes to personal injury claims ever since - including in the UK - and contributed to a false narrative of soaring court cases.

The furore erupted in August 1994 when Stella Liebeck - a British-born grandmother living in Albuquerque, New Mexico - was awarded $2.9 million in damages after suffering third degree burns to her lower body when she knocked an entire cup of coffee into her lap while trying to take the lid off.

The case, dubbed the "poster child for excessive lawsuits" by some US media, left many with the impression that this was a frivolous example of someone cashing in on the surprise discovery that coffee is served hot.

The Herald: Contrary to popular opinion, Stella Liebeck didn't actually end up with $3m in damagesContrary to popular opinion, Stella Liebeck didn't actually end up with $3m in damages (Image: agency)

In reality, the Liebeck case was pretty tragic. The 79-year-old had purchased the takeaway coffee while passing through a drive-thru with her grandson in February 1992.

The vehicle did not have a cup holder so she placed the carton between her knees while trying to remove the lid - at which point it tipped over and the coffee (temperature 88°C) soaked through her cotton trousers, burning her thighs, groin, and buttocks.

The pain was so excruciating that she passed out and subsequently spent eight days in hospital undergoing skin grafts, but was left permanently disfigured with injuries that have been compared to "something you'd see in a shark attack".



She initially sought to settle with McDonald's for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses plus the loss of income for her daughter, who had been required to care full-time for her mother in the weeks following her discharge from hospital.

The corporation offered $800, and refused successive other attempts to settle prior to the trial.

Ms Liebeck's victory hinged on the conclusion that it was "unreasonably dangerous" for the restaurant to be serving coffee at 88°C.

Evidence demonstrated that this was significantly hotter than the norm and that lowering it to 71°C increased the time it would take for spilled liquid to cause skin-graft level burns to 20 seconds (instead of three) - sufficient time to avoid serious harm.

The trial also revealed that by the time of Ms Liebeck's injury, the fast food chain had already dealt with more than 700 reports of people being burned by its coffee to varying degrees of severity since 1982.


Her damages award was based on a ruling by the jury that she was 20% at-fault for her injury (which reduced her compensatory damages from $200,000 to $160,000), with McDonald's 80% liable.

The corporation was ordered to pay $2.7m in punitive damages - equivalent to two days' worth of coffee sales revenue - but this was subsequently reduced on appeal to $480,000. Both sides appealed again over this amount, but ultimately settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

Ms Liebeck died in August 2004, aged 91. Her daughter said years of legal proceedings "took their toll" on her health.

Far from "jackpot justice", hers is a cautionary tale that suing for personal injury damages - let alone winning - is anything but easy.

The 30-year anniversary of that infamous case looms amid some debate over how Scotland's courts handle personal injury claims.

In October this year, England and Wales extended its regulations on fixed recoverable costs (FRCs) to cover awards up to £100,000.

The FRC system - which Scotland lacks - provides certainty over the maximum amount a losing party will have to pay.

In Scotland, critics argue that the ratio of damages to costs has become disproportionate - ramping up insurance premiums to the detriment of consumers and taxpayers.

For example, suppose a claimant sues for medical negligence, wins, and is awarded £8000 in damages: on current trends, the NHS (or its insurers) would actually pay out £12,880. The extra £4,880 - a 61% mark-up - effectively goes to the injured party's solicitors for legal costs.

In addition, variations in a levy known as the personal injury discount rate (PIDR) mean that damages claims cost the public purse significantly more in Scotland and Northern Ireland versus England & Wales. All three PIDRs are scheduled for review in 2024.

The idea that personal injury claims drive up costs for everyone - or that taxpayers pick up the tab - has fostered a degree of resentment around the sector.

In June 2021, there were warnings that Scotland's courts would face a deluge of litigations after legislative changes removed the requirement for an unsuccessful personal injury claimant to cover their opponent's legal costs.

The goal was to address the David and Goliath gulf between, for example, a patient and a health board.

It is probably too early to say whether any uptick really occurred given the vagaries of the pandemic and the fact that the most up-to-date available civil justice statistics cover 2021/22.

Nonetheless, it is worth noting that the figures we do have debunk the long-running narrative of a "claims culture" spiralling out of control.

Between 2012/13 and 2019/20, the total number of personal injury cases initiated in Scottish courts barely changed, going from 8,693 to 8,576.

The Herald:

The Herald: Personal injury cases initiated in Scottish courts, by year and type of claimPersonal injury cases initiated in Scottish courts, by year and type of claim (Image: Scottish Government)

Last year, there were 7,598 new cases, though the Covid hangover was still slowing proceedings.

In total, personal injury cases account for just 14% of all civil litigation in Scotland. The vast majority (56% last year) relate to road traffic accidents.

Accident at work cases have actually declined, from around 1,800 a year between 2012-2015 to roughly 1,500 a year since 2016.

Clinical negligence cases have fluctuated from a low of 203 in 2012/13 to a peak of 901 in 2017/18, before falling back to 342 in 2018/19. Last year there were 343 cases.

Not all these cases will succeed, of course, and many more personal injury claims (an estimated 75% in the UK) are settled without ever going to court.

Perhaps the lingering hostility simply speaks to a society that tends to value money over health?

Why else would a safety net designed to provide redress for disability and lost quality of life come to be viewed like a lottery win?