Known as the ‘McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case’, Liebeck v. McDonald’s has taken a major influence in the area of tort law.
The woman burned by scalding hot coffee that she purchased at the drive through window was awarded almost $3 million by a jury after she spilled practically an entire cup of burning hot coffee on her thighs when wearing sweatpants and sitting in the passenger seat of a car.
This case sparked a generation of criticisms of the personal injury law system.
Here, we will tell you the real story and explain why the jury’s verdict should not have been thought of as anything out of the ordinary, considering the way that the personal injury system is supposed to work.
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. Liebeck was sitting in the passenger’s seat.
Politely, Chris pulled into a parking space so that his grandmother could add cream and sugar to her coffee. In the process, the coffee cup tipped and some of the McDonald’s coffee spilled onto her groin, burning her rear-end and thighs.
She was only wearing cotton sweatpants and they did not effectively guard her because the temperature of the spilled coffee served was 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 for eight days, because she suffered third degree burns from scalding hot coffee, where she received skin grafting.
The incident left her with the loss of much of her body weight, permanent disfigurement on her inner thighs, and disability for years to come.
Liebeck’s Injuries Were Serious, but McDonald’s Made its Problems Far Worse
Combined, Liebeck’s losses from the incident (medical costs that Liebeck spent, loss of work, etc.) were a little under $20,000, and she offered to settle with McDonald’s for that amount. McDonald’s refused and suggested less than $1,000.
This was a classic example where the restaurant chain could have avoided a major problem had it received better advice from its corporate lawyers. The way that McDonald’s responded to the initial claim only made it look worse in the eyes of the jury.
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.
If the headlines read “McDonald’s Settles Lawsuit,” the case would not have made the national news that it did. Instead, it was used to attack the entire personal injury system.
Critics Will Make False Arguments About a Frivolous Lawsuit
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 sued McDonald’s using two claims, as advanced by her attorney Reed Morgan
- 1) Negligence
- 2) Product Liability
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.
Third Degree Burns Are Extremely Serious
In a look back at this retro report, this was actually a true story and not something that just became an urban legend. Serious burn care is not a laughing matter, no matter what comedians and critical newspapers say.
What is lost in all the controversy about the McDonalds hot coffee lawsuit is the fact the plaintiff suffered very serious injuries when the coffee spilled on her lap. While people focused on the spilled coffee as a way to minimize the experience that the plaintiff went through, she suffered severe injuries that required extensive medical treatment.
The Headlines Were Enraged About the McDonalds Hot Coffee Lawsuit
Headlines in publications such as the Wall Street Journal blared about frivolous lawsuits, ignoring the facts that the plaintiff suffered serious burns from coffee served unnecessarily hot.
Late night comedians had a field day with the jury verdict, ignoring the real reasons why the verdict was so high.
However, to gain a true understanding of what happened here, you need to understand the conduct of McDonald’s restaurants in this case. McDonald’s coffee sales were the number one objective here, with customer safety coming in far behind it.
Punitive Damages for the Spilled Coffee
Here, the fast food chain knew very well that its customers could suffer serious injury from the temperature of the coffee.
They knew full well of the dangers of the product and the way that they serve coffee. What the jury heard aggravated and angered them tremendously. McDonald’s cared more about coffee sales than it did about anything else.
The jury found that the company failed to warn customers of the possibility of injuries, even though hundreds of people had suffered second degree burns and other lesser burns from its coffee spilled.
McDonald’s admitted that it was serving its coffee far hotter than other chains, but it believed that the extremely hot temperature would give it an edge in the fast food wars.
The compensatory damages were set at $200,000. Arguably, this was far higher than Stella Liebeck was initially seeking from McDonald’s. The trial judge reduced this part of the verdict to $160,000.
The real problem is that McDonald’s required its restaurants to do something dangerous in the face of known dangers. These are exactly the type of cases that anger juries, and it should have been no surprise that McDonald’s was punished so seriously by the jury.
The End or just the Beginning
The Liebeck case sparked a debate all across the country regarding frivolous personal injury 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.
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