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Liebeck v. McDonald’s: The Hot Coffee Controversy

The McDonald's Coffee Cup Case

Introduction to an Infamous Personal Injury Lawsuit Controversy:

A normal woman in a small town drives up to a McDonald’s and orders a cup of coffee. The rest is history. In the weeks and months to follow this encounter, great controversy would swirl around this woman and her latte. Television shows, pundits, and politicians across the country debated the matter vigorously. A documentary was even produced depicting the incident (called Hot Coffee). Yet, what actually happened?

On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, 79 years old, pulled into the drive-through of a McDonald’s restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico and ordered a cup of coffee. It only cost her 49 cents but it serving her that drink would cost the restaurant a lot more than that when it was all said and done. Stella was not actually driving; her grandson, Chris, was driving his 1989 Ford Probe.

Politely, Chris pulled into a parking space so that his grandmother could add cream and sugar to her coffee. In the process, some of it spilled out of the cup and onto her groin, burning her butt and thighs. She was only wearing cotton pants and they did not effectively guard her from the high temperatures of the coffee (said to be over 180 °F).

Quickly, she was rushed to the hospital where doctors determined she had suffered third-degree burns on a small part of her body. She stayed at the hospital a little over a week where she received skin grafting. The incident left her with significant weight loss, permanent disfigurement, and disability for years to come.

Combined, Liebeck’s losses from the incident (medical bills, loss of work, etc.) were a little under $20,000, and she offered to settle with McDonald’s for that amount. They refused and suggested less than $1,000.

This prompted her to obtain legal counsel. Her burn injury lawyers sought to compromise with the fast-food giant for $300,000. When the company again balked, unfortunately as it turned out, they went to trial where the jury awarded Liebeck $160,000 in medical expenses and $2.7 million in punitive damages. See WL 360309 (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. 1994) While the judge would eventually lower her total recovery to $640,000, this gave critics nationally the ammunition they needed to point to this case as the epitome of frivolous litigation and excessive awards.

Though it may be surprising, statistics actually tend to disprove the argument that excessive or frivolous litigation is choking the life out of the American legal system. Many studies (even those by the conservative Rand Institute) show that only a small percentage of those injured file a lawsuit against their transgressor.

Furthermore, less than ten percent of all cases related to torts since the early 1990s. However, even if these statistics were not true (which they are), and even if her injuries were not severe (which they were), this case illustrates the great divide between rhetoric and reality.

That is to say that one must separate the great controversy this case created and focus on the underlying legal issues. By doing this, one can begin to see how such large awards and settlements can arise out of such mundane conduct-how such extraordinary liability can emerge out of a drive-through. This is instructive for businesses, organizations, and many people in modern, urban society.

Liebeck’s Case

As soon as Stella Liebeck brought on legal counsel, Reed Morgan, he soon targeted two claims:

Under the first claim, Morgan argued that McDonald’s was grossly negligent in serving coffee that was unreasonably dangerous. To prove negligence, one must show that a defendant breached a duty owed to the plaintiff and that breach caused the plaintiff damages.

Here, by selling Liebeck coffee it can easily be argued that a duty was created requiring the company to serve her as similarly situated companies would serve her as well. Context is key. Negligence only requires what reasonable people would do in the same circumstances. However, the question arose-did McDonald’s breach that duty by serving coffee at temperatures above 180 °F?

Certain facts and confessions at trial tended to prove that even the restaurant believed it was not acting reasonably. First of all, they added a warning on the label of all coffee cups saying that the coffee they were serving was in fact dangerous. Second, their own quality assurance manager testified that while they served their coffee at over 180 °F, they knew anything over 140 °F was dangerous. Third, while they initially claimed that they thought customers would take their coffee home and drink it, they eventually confessed that they knew many customers drank their coffee right after they got it.

This is important because it does not give the coffee time to cool and it proves McDonald’s knew customers were drinking coffee at dangerous temperatures. All of these facts and more convinced a jury that even McDonald’s knew it was acting unreasonably and breached a duty it had to Liebeck. Thus, negligence was not hard to establish.

The other claim that Liebeck advanced through Morgan was that the coffee was defectively manufactured. This is a products liability argument that argues that some defect in the particular item given to the plaintiff made it different than all the others and that defect caused the plaintiff injury. Also, that defect was not made known to the plaintiff.

Generally, the item must have generally differed from the reasonable expectations of the plaintiff. Here, the defect in question was the temperature of the coffee. Liebeck stated that coffee should not have been served at that heat and that the heat caused her injuries. This issue made the jury decide whether serving hotter than usual coffee made the coffee defective. They reached the decision that it did largely because the extreme temperature of the coffee rendered it undrinkable and thus made moot its essential beverage function. Thus, they found that the coffee was defectively manufactured.

The End or just the Beginning

The Liebeck case sparked a debate all across the country regarding frivolous lawsuits and excessive jury awards. Many saw this as a signal that tort reform was in dire need. However, far beneath the squawk and squabble of the media and other chattering classes, the real issues-legal issues-remained to be tussled over by both sides.

What this case shows us is that sometimes common actions can lead to uncommon consequences. Also, as in any case, there exists the possibility of a runaway jury. Here, it came back with over one million dollars in hand for Mrs. Liebeck, and while the judge can limit that amount, he or she cannot entirely remove that great sums doled out by juries. Therefore, it appears that many commenting on this case failed to realize the very tangible legal concepts at play as well as the intangible nature of a jury’s power.

Learn more about how personal injury cases are evaluated, look at our personal injury case valuation section here. To learn about the success Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers has had with personal injury and medical malpractice cases, look here.