There is a lot of misinformation floating around concerning the famous McDonald’s coffee case. Most trial attorneys have encountered at least one prospective juror who has mentioned this case as an example of a frivolous lawsuit. A case, most believe, where a lady got millions of dollars for spilling coffee on herself while trying mix and drink her coffee while driving. These are not the actual facts of the case. Here is the accurate version of the facts of the case.
Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car when she was severely burned by McDonald’s coffee in February 1992. Liebeck, who was 79 at the time, ordered coffee that was served in a styrofoam cup at the drive through window of a local McDonald’s.
After receiving the order, the grandson pulled his car forward and stopped momentarily so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. As I mentioned above, most people believe that Ms. Liebeck was driving or that the car was moving at the time the coffee spilled. Neither is true. Ms. Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid that was tightly secured to the cup. As she removed the lid, most of the coffee in the cup spilled into her lap.
Ms. Liebeck was wearing a running suit that absorbed the coffee and held it next to her skin. She sustained third degree burns (also known as full thickness burns) over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent burn treatment and skin grafting. Ms. Liebeck also underwent debridement treatments, which is the removal of the burnt skin. If that doesn’t sound painful, I don’t know what does.
Ms. Liebeck brought a claim against McDonald’s in which she sought approximately $20,000. I presume this was primarily to cover her out of pocket medical expenses. However, McDonald’s denied it had done anything wrong and refused to offer any settlement amount.
During the case, McDonald’s produced its own documents showing that between 1982 and 1992 more than 700 claims had been presented to McDonalds by people who had been burned by its coffee. The degree of the burns varied from case to case but some claims involved third degree burns similar to Ms. Liebecks. In fact, some of the people were mere children and infants and some were burned due to accidental spilling by McDonald’s employees. This history showed that McDonald’s had prior knowledge that its coffee was capable of burning people, and in some instances, severely burning them.
During the case, McDonald’s also said that a consultant advised McDonalds should keep its coffee heated at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain optimum taste. The consultant admitted that he had not evaluated the safety consequences of selling coffee at this temperature. It was established during the case that other establishments regularly sell coffee at substantially lower temperatures, and that coffee served at home is generally between 135 to 140 degrees.
In fact, a McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that the company actively enforces the requirement that coffee be kept in the pot at 185 degrees, plus or minus five degrees. The manager also testified that a burn hazard existed with any food substance served at 140 degrees or above, and that McDonald’s coffee, at the temperature it was kept at, was dangerous because it could burn the mouth and throat. The manager admitted that he knew burns would occur, but also testified that McDonald’s had no intention of reducing the “holding temperature” of its coffee.
Ms. Liebeck’s attorney hired an expert witness who was a scholar in thermodynamics as applied to human skin burns. He testified that liquids at 180 degrees will cause a third degree burn or full thickness burn down to the fatty tissue and muscle to human skin in only two to seven seconds. Other testimony showed that as the temperature decreases toward 155 degrees, the extent of the burn damage relative to that temperature decreases exponentially. Thus, if Ms. Liebeck’s coffee had been 155 degrees instead of the 180-190 degrees, she would have had approximately 60 seconds before she suffered a third degree burn, enough time to avoid a serious burn.
So what was McDonald’s excuse for keeping the coffee so hot in spite of knowing it was dangerous to its customers? McDonald’s asserted that customers buy coffee on their way to work or home, intending to consume it there and so it wanted to make sure the coffee was going to remain hot for when the customer reached his or her destination. In spite of this assertion, it was discovered that the company’s own research showed that most customers intended to begin to consume the coffee immediately upon receiving the coffee.
McDonald’s also argued that consumers know coffee is hot and that its customers want it that way. McDonald’s did admit that its customers were unaware that they could suffer third degree burns from the coffee and that a statement on the side of the cup was not a “warning” but a “reminder” since the location of the writing would not warn customers of the hazard.
So what actually happened at the end of the trial? The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages for her medical bills, pain and suffering and other items. The jury also awarded Ms. Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages for McDonald’s egregious behavior selling the coffee at the dangerous temperature while knowing it would pose a grave danger to the wellbeing of its customers. The $2.7 million figure only equals about two (2) days worth of McDonald’s coffee sales. Only two days.
After the trial, at a separate with just the attorneys and the judge, the judge reduced the $200,000 compensatory damage award to $160,000 because the jury found Ms. Liebeck 20 percent at fault in causing the spill. The judge was required to make this reduction dueto the jury finding some fault on Ms. Liebeck in causing the spill. The judge also reduced the punitive damage award from $2.7 million to $480,000 even though the judge himself called McDonald’s conduct reckless, callous and willful. At some point later on, Ms. Liebeck and McDonalds agreed to a private settlement.
It is interesting to note that not long after the case ended, an investigation found that the McDonald’s where Ms. Liebeck was injured had reduced the temperature of its coffee to 158 degrees. While this is still hot, it takes almost a full 60 seconds to cause a third degree burn at this temperature as opposed to the 2-7 seconds it takes for 180 degree coffee to cause a third degree burn.
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