The Notorious Hot Coffee Case: A Look at the Entire Set of Facts

by Legal Author on January 22, 2013

(Guest blog post regarding the notorious US hot coffee case)

On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck ordered a cup of coffee at a McDonald’s drive-through window. Ms. Liebeck accidentally spilled the coffee in her lap, and then sued McDonalds. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $160,000 in compensation for her medical costs, and $2.7 million dollars in punitive damages. This case is likely responsible for more of the everyday knowledge of the United States Court system, and is frequently cited as the case for a court system run amok. Without full appraisal of the facts in cases such as these and an understanding of the nature and purpose of punitive damages, the public becomes convinced that these cases are frivolous and damaging to the integrity of our court system.

This simplistic telling of the facts leaves out much that is relevant, however. McDonald’s served its coffee heated to 180-190 degrees, despite 700 prior consumer warnings as to the safety of this company practice. No warnings were posted about the temperature of the coffee, and the cup had a warning only in tiny script. 79-year-old Ms. Liebeck was not the driver of the car. The car was parked, and Ms. Liebeck was trying to remove the lid to add sugar when the coffee spilled. She suffered third-degree burns over six percent of her body, endured several skin grafts, stayed a week in the hospital, and was permanently disfigured on her thighs, groin, and buttocks. Ms. Liebeck then wrote to McDonald’s and asked for medical expenses and lost wages for her caregiver daughter. This request would have amounted to $15,000.00; instead, McDonalds offered her $800.00 for complete settlement. In a required mediation before trial, the mediator recommended that McDonald’s settle with Ms. Liebeck for $225,000.00. McDonalds refused, instead preferring to go to trial.

These facts certainly make a plaintiff more sympathetic to a jury, but $2.7 million in punitive damages seems an excessively outrageous amount. However, at trial, McDonald’s admitted that due to market studies on coffee temperature, it preferred to serve scalding hot coffee as a better sales practice, knowing that people would be injured but that settlements with those injured would be far outweighed by profit. The jury felt that McDonald’s should be punished for its callous cost-benefit analysis of customer injury. The $2.7 million figure represented two days of McDonald’s profit from selling coffee. The jury felt this was the only way to deter McDonald’s and send companies a clear message about this egregious type of cost-benefit analysis. It is unknown how much Ms. Liebeck actually received, because the parties settled out of court rather than filing appeals.

The verdict did redirect McDonald’s practices. In Ms. Liebeck’s hometown, McDonalds reduced the temperature of its coffee. In all McDonald’s restaurants, the company served hot drinks in cups that said HOT! HOT! HOT! in large print and posted warnings at all drive-through windows.
However, McDonald’s and other companies have spent millions distorting public opinion, attempting to convince the public that the court system is broken and requires reform. The effect of these efforts is clearly felt in legislation such as the Common Sense Legal Reforms Act of 1995 and the Common Sense Product Liability Legal Reform Act of 1996, both of which were introduced shortly after the conclusion of this case and subsequently passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate. Less clear is how all of this affects potential plaintiffs’ individual right to a remedy.

Liebeck v. McDonald’s Rest., No. 93-02419, 1995 WL 360309.

Caroline Forell, McTorts: The Social and Legal Impact of McDonald’s Role in Tort Suits, found at http://www.luc.edu/law/activities/publications/clrdocs/vol24issue2/pdfs/forell_mctorts.pdf, last viewed Jan. 15, 2013.

Frivolous Lawsuits and How We Perceive Them, Yale Journal of Medicine and Law found at http://www.yalemedlaw.com/2011/12/frivolous-lawsuits-and-how-we-perceive-them/, last viewed Jan. 15, 2013.

This piece was contributed by Lars Josephson, a frequent writer on law, politics, finance and current issues based in the greater metropolitan area of Phoenix; if this piece sparked your interest in such cases, be sure to learn more by clicking Personal Injury.

 

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Legal Author

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