Dispelling the Myths of Litigation in the United States of America
Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, also known as the “McDonald’s coffee case” and “the hot coffee lawsuit,” was a 1994 product liability lawsuit that became a flashpoint in the debate in the United States over tort reform. A New Mexico civil jury awarded $2.86 million to plaintiff Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman who suffered from third-degree burns in her pelvic region when she accidentally spilled hot coffee in her lap after purchasing it from a McDonald’s restaurant. Liebeck was hospitalized for eight days while she underwent skin grafting, followed by two years of medical treatment. Liebeck’s attorneys argued that at 180-190 °F (82-88 °C), McDonald’s coffee was defective, and claimed that it was too hot and more likely to cause serious injury than coffee served at any other establishment. McDonald’s had refused several prior opportunities to settle for less than what the jury ultimately awarded: $160,000 to cover Liebeck’s medical expenses and compensatory damages, and $2.7 million in punitive damages. The trial judge reduced the final verdict to $640,000, and the parties settled for a confidential amount before an appeal was decided. The case was said by some to be an example of frivolous litigation; ABC News called the case “the poster child of excessive lawsuits,” while the legal scholar Jonathan Turley argued that the claim was “a meaningful and worthy lawsuit.”
The burn incident itself was outlined as follows: On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman for Albuquerque, New Mexico, ordered a 49-cent cup of coffee from the drive-through window of a local McDonald’s restaurant. Liebeck was in the passenger’s seat of a 1989 Ford Probe owned by her grandson Chris, who did not have cup holders, and Chris parked the car so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Liebeck placed the coffee cup between her knees and pulled the far side of the lid toward her to remove it. In the process, she spilled the entire cup of coffee on her lap. Liebeck was wearing cotton sweatpants, which absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin, scalding her thighs, buttocks, and groin. Liebeck was taken to the hospital, where it was determined that she had suffered third-degree burns on six percent of her skin, and lesser burns over sixteen percent. She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent skin grafting. During this period, Liebeck lost 20 pounds (9kg, nearly twenty percent of her bodyweight), reducing her bodyweight to 83 pounds (38kg). After the hospital stay, Liebeck needed care for three weeks, provided by her daughter. Liebeck suffered permanent disfigurement after the incident and was partially disabled for two years.
There were several pre-trial issues which came into play: Liebeck sought to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000 to cover her actual and anticipated expenses. Her past medical expenses were $10,500; her anticipated future medical expenses were approximately $2,500; and her daughter’s loss of income was approximately $5,000 for a total of approximately $18,000. Instead, the company offered only $800. When McDonald’s refused to raise its offer, Liebeck retained Texas attorney Reed Morgan. Attorney Morgan filed suit in New Mexico District Court accusing McDonald’s of “gross negligence” for selling coffee that was “unreasonably dangerous” and “defectively manufactured.” McDonald’s refused Attorney Morgan’s offer to settle for $90,000. Attorney Morgan offered to settle for $300,000, and a mediator suggested $225,000 just before trial, but McDonald’s refused these final pre-trial attempts to settle.
The trial took place from August 8 to August 17, 1994, before New Mexico District Court Judge Robert H. Scott. During this case, Liebeck’s attorneys discovered that McDonald’s required franchisees to hold their coffee at 180-190 °F (82-88 °C). At 190 °F (88 °C), the coffee would cause a third-degree burn in two to seven seconds. Liebeck’s attorney argued that coffee should never be served hotter than 140 °F (60 °C), and that a number of other establishments served coffee at a substantially lower temperature than McDonald’s. Liebeck’s lawyers presented the jury with evidence that 180 °F (82 °C) coffee like that which McDonald’s served may produce third-degree burns (where skin grafting is necessary) in about 12 to 15 seconds. Lowering the temperature to 160 °F (71 °C) would increase the time for the coffee to produce such a burn to 20 seconds. Liebeck’s attorneys argued that these extra seconds could provide adequate time to remove the coffee from exposed skin, thereby preventing many burns. McDonald’s claimed that the reason for serving such hot coffee in its drive-through windows was that those who purchased the coffee typically were commuters who wanted to drive a distance with the coffee, and that the high initial temperature would keep the coffee hot during the trip. However, the company’s own research showed that some customers intend to consume the coffee immediately, while driving.
Other documents obtained from McDonald’s showed that from 1982 to 1992 the company had received more than 700 reports of people burned by McDonald’s coffee to varying degrees of severity, and had settled claims arising from scalding injuries for more than $500,000. McDonald’s quality control manager, Christopher Appleton, testified that this number of injuries was insufficient to cause the company to evaluate its practices. He argued that all foods hotter than 130 °F (54 °C) constituted a burn hazard, and that restaurants had more pressing dangers to warn about. The plaintiffs argued that Appleton conceded that McDonald’s coffee would burn the mouth and throat if consumed when served.
On August 18, 1994, a twelve-person jury reached its verdict. Applying the principles of comparative negligence, the jury found that McDonald’s was 80% responsible for the incident and that Liebeck was 20% at fault. Though there was a warning on the coffee cup, the jury decided that the warning was neither large enough nor sufficient. They awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages, which was then reduced by 20% to $160,000. In addition, they awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages. The jurors apparently arrived at this figure from Morgan’s suggestion to penalize McDonald’s for one or two days’ worth of coffee revenues, which were about $1.35 million per day. The judge reduced punitive damages to $480,000, three times the compensatory amount, for a total of $640,000. The decision was appealed by both McDonald’s and Liebeck in December 1994, but the parties settled out of court for an undisclosed amount less than $600,000.
While it may appear to those outside the United States looking inward that something as simple as spilled coffee may net an injured party millions of dollars in the courtroom, the truth of the matter is more reasonable: that a company whose business practices harmed others, who knew such harm was occurring but decided that the number of injuries were not sufficient to reevaluate business practices, and which business practices caused severe injury, was found sufficiently liable to award such a high verdict. Further, once the jury awarded such a verdict, the amount was reduced by a judge as a more appropriate remedy for the injured party.
The attorneys at Urban Thier & Federer, P.A. are highly skilled in the area of personal injury law and work tirelessly to secure fair outcomes for those who have been injured. If you believe that you have been injured, contact us for a consultation to see if our representation is right for you.