McDonald’s hot coffee case- Frivolous lawsuit or negligence by McDonald's?

We all remember the story of the careless woman who tried to drink her coffee while trying to drive her car and unsurprisingly spilt the coffee on herself and then sued McDonald’s for her negligence. The case was decided in 1994 and since then the facts have been mended and malign the victim and paint the suit as a classic case of greed or frivolous suits whereas the truth is far from it.


The Ordeal

The facts of the case are, on February 27th 1992, a 79-year-old Stella Liebeck had ordered a coffee from a McDonald’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico and was sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car when she tried to uncap the lid of the coffee container and inadvertently spilt the coffee on her thighs and genitals causing her severe third-degree burns on 6 per cent of her body. Mrs Liebeck had to be hospitalised for 8 days and further 2 years of skin grafting procedures had to be conducted to replace and regenerate the skin that had evaporated off her body.

The hospital bills had racked up to $10,000 and for a retired department store clerk the amount was difficult to pay off and Liebeck approached McDonald’s asking them to pay her $20,000 for previous and anticipated hospital bills along with the income which her daughter lost in taking care of Mrs Liebeck. McDonald’s offered to pay only $800 which led Liebeck to file a suit.

The suit was filed by Liebeck’s attorney, Reed Morgan, in the U.S District Court of New Mexico and during the pre-trial mediation, McDonald’s refused to settle with Liebeck for $225,000.


The Trail

During the trial, multiple pieces of evidence were uncovered by the courts.

McDonald’s operation manual required the franchisee to heat the coffee at 82 °C to 88 °C (180 °F to 190 °F). At such a high temperature, third-degree burns can be caused within 3 to 7 seconds and third-degree burns do not heal without skin grafting surgery which is an expensive procedure which leads to disablement for months or years.

McDonald’s accepted that they knew about the risk of serious burns from the coffee for over ten years and the risk of serious bodily damage was brought to the company’s attention by other victims through claims and suits but McDonald’s did not pay any attention to the issue. In the decade before this incident, the coffee from McDonald’s had burned more than 700 people who had severe burns on their thighs, posteriors, perineum and genitals.

Witnesses from McDonald’s agreed that the consumers were not made aware of the risk of the accidental spilling the scalding hot coffee nor had the customers themselves taken cognisance of the risk of consuming such hot coffee. McDonald’s admitted that the coffee served was not fit for consumption when sold and would require the consumer to let the coffee simmer down before they could consume it.

Liebeck’s doctor testified that in his entire career he had not seen such a bad case of scald burns on any person.


Why was the coffee that hot?

According to industry experts, hot beverages have to be served at high temperature to provide the consumer with a satisfactory sensation. McDonald’s also backed it up by explaining that their “drive-thru” customers consume the beverages over longer distances since they are driving and serving the coffee at the higher temperatures allows the consumers to enjoy the coffee over a longer duration of time. But this claim was rebutted by the plaintiff in research which showed that consumers drank the coffee immediately or within a reasonable time.

Research has shown that the optimal drinking temperature should be approximately 58 °C. This temperature makes it ideal for the customer as they are not subject to scalding hot coffee and yet attain a high level of customer satisfaction.


Verdict

The twelve-person jury gave their verdict in 1994 by applying principles of comparative negligence. The jury agreed that Liebeck was also at fault but assigned a majority 80% of the negligence on McDonald’s. The coffee cup did have a warning but the jury agreed that it was not large enough to be noticed by the average customer. Liebeck was awarded $200,000 in damages and since Liebeck was held partly responsible for the spill, the award was reduced to $160,000. Liebeck was also awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages which were calculated based on McDonald’s two-day revenue from coffee sales. The judge later reduced the punitive damages down to $480,000, which brought the total compensation to $640,000. The decision was appealed by both the parties and eventually McDonald’s agreed for an out of court settlement with Liebeck for an amount lower than $600,000.


Post-trial discussion

The trial caught intense media attention from around the world mostly due to the high punitive damages that were recommended by the jury. The re-enactment by the media was also blurring the facts and narrative, certain news broadcasters reported that Liebeck was driving the car when the accident occurred which would assign the blame solely on her. The case has become synonymous with the flawed legal system in the USA and has been made the poster case for tort reform.


Conclusion

The Liebeck v McDonald’s Restaurants case is an astonishing and rare case where David defeated the Goliath and its army of lawyers.

But public opinion about the case has been changed by the lawyers who represented McDonald’s. The media ran a campaign which maligned the plaintiff’s intentions and painted the incident as a classic case of frivolous lawsuits rampant in the United States.

Multi-billion dollar companies have “AstroTurfed” organisations such as “Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse” to distort the public opinion on lawsuits against them. Recent data suggests that the number of personal injury lawsuits has declined and the median settlement pay-out is only $55,000.

Newspapers that reported the case did not indulge into the facts prior to the trial and how Mrs Liebeck was not the only victim of the hot coffee. Such distortion has painted this case into an evil that is the suing culture that exists in America.

After admitting their fault, McDonald’s has re-engineered their foam cups to be sturdier to temperature changes and has also reduced the temperature at which coffee is served to the customers. While these are welcome changes, the overall public opinion on the case still is sympathetic towards McDonald’s. Since Liebeck was awarded such a large sum of money, she was considered as a cash grabber and not someone who was grievously hurt.

AUTHOR

OMKAR APUGOL

References

  1. German Lopez “What a lot of people get wrong about the infamous 1994 McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit” Vox https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/12/16/13971482/mcdonalds-coffee-lawsuit-stella-liebeck

  2. “The McDonald’s hot coffee case” Consumers Attorneys of California https://www.caoc.org/?pg=facts

  3. “McDonalds' Hot Coffee Case - Read the Facts NOT the Fiction” Texas Trial Lawyers Association