The Coffee Case: McDonald’s Got Lucky

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One of my pet peeves as a trial lawyer is the misconception that people still have, many years later, about the infamous McDonald’s Coffee case. Based on what I believe was slanted coverage by the media in favor of Big Business and against trial lawyers, the case became the poster child for the tort reform? movement to stop frivolous lawsuits.

People hearing that a woman was burned when she spilled coffee on herself but sued was enough for them to say, that’s ridiculous and that the lawsuit was frivolous without listening any further.

However, if you look at the true facts of the case, I think you might agree with me that the lawsuit was appropriate and that McDonald’s actually got lucky, very lucky, in the end.

The True Facts of the McDonald’s Coffee Case

In 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79 year-old woman, purchased a 49? cup of coffee from the drive-thru at the Albuquerque, New Mexico McDonald’s. Stella was seated in the passenger seat and her grandson was driving. They pulled over so that Stella could put cream and sugar in the coffee.

As Stella was fixing her coffee, it accidentally spilled into her lap. Stella’s cotton sweatpants soaked up the coffee and, before she could remove them, Stella sustained severe burns to her thighs, buttocks and groin area.

Stella was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with third degree burns over 6 percent of her body and lesser burns on 16 percent of her body. She was hospitalized for eight days, underwent surgical procedures to debride the wounds and apply skin grafts and suffered excruciating pain. Stella had two years of medical treatment at a cost of over $11,000.

The following are the true facts regarding Stella’s lawsuit against McDonald’s:

  • Stella offered to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000, but McDonald’s only offered $800
  • Stella sued McDonald’s for gross negligence

At trial, the jury heard the following evidence:

  • McDonald’s enforced a franchise-wide policy of serving coffee at 185?F, plus or minus 5 degrees
  • Coffee at home is served at 135-140?F.
  • Coffee at 185?F is not fit for consumption because it will burn the mouth and throat
  • Coffee at 185?F will cause third degree burns after two to three seconds of exposure on the skin
  • Third degree burns do not heal without surgery and skin grafting, and they cause extreme pain and permanent scarring
  • From 1982 to 1992, McDonald’s received more than 700 complaints of people being burned by its coffee resulting in many third degree burns and numerous claims and lawsuits
  • McDonald’s had no intent to reduce the temperature of its coffee
  • McDonald’s earned approximately $1.35 million per day from coffee sales

The Result

The jury reached a verdict which held McDonald’s negligent and 80 percent responsible for the accident and Stella negligent and 20 percent responsible. The jury awarded compensatory damages of $200,000 (which was reduced by 20 percent to $160,000 to account for Stella’s 20 percent negligence).

The jury also awarded punitive damages of $2.7 million, which was equal to two days of coffee sales.

The trial judge reduced the punitive damage award to $480,000 (three times the compensatory damage award) making the total reduced award $640,000 ($180,000 compensatory and $480,000 punitive).

During the appeal, Stella and McDonald’s settled the case for an undisclosed sum which is believed to be less than $600,000.

Commentary

To me, the McDonald’s Coffee case should not have been the poster child for frivolous lawsuits and tort reform. On the contrary, I see it as a shining example of how our court system can force wrongdoers to be held accountable for their actions.

McDonald’s enforced a franchise-wide policy of serving undrinkable scalding coffee that would cause third degree burns in two to three seconds. McDonald’s had received over 700 complaints of burns and yet did nothing about it and had no plans to do so.

Stella was held accountable for her 20 percent negligence in spilling the coffee and the jury attempted to compensate her, as well as punish McDonald’s for what the judge labeled as callous conduct. In my opinion, McDonald’s got lucky through the judge’s reduction of the award and the fact that the case was settled.

Nevertheless, Stella’s claim may have accomplished some greater good. News reports from the day after the verdict were that the Albuquerque McDonald’s had reduced the temperature of its coffee from 185?F to 158?F. At 158?F, coffee is actually drinkable and it would take sixty seconds of exposure, rather than two to three seconds, to cause a serious burn.

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