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Around Our Town...Legally Speaking

The McDonald's Coffee Case

08/01/2005 - Perhaps one of the most misrepresented cases in the tort reform debate is the 1994 personal injury award to 79-year-old Stella Liebeck, the Albuquerque New Mexico woman who spilled scalding McDonald's coffee on her lap in 1992.

Many, when they heard $2.9 million was awarded for a coffee spill, immediately assumed this was just another example of an attorney conning a jury into a so-called runaway verdict. However, in the maelstrom of misinformation, the general public did not learn1:

McFact 1: Prior to the lawsuit, McDonald's had a policy requiring its coffee be sold at 190 degrees Fahrenheit. Coffee is perked in your kitchen coffee maker at between 135 and 140 degrees. Automobile radiators are at 180 degrees. Liquid at 190 degrees takes less than three seconds to produce third degree burns, and at 160 degrees, about 20 seconds

McFact 2: More than 700 prior incidents of excessively hot coffee burns had been reported to the company over ten years, resulting in numerous claims, some settling for over $500,000. Nonetheless, McDonald's persisted in selling coffee too hot for safe human consumption.

McFact 3: The victim was not driving a car, but was a passenger with her grandson, who stopped the car so she could add cream and sugar. Because the car had no cup holders and a slanted dash, she put the cup between her knees. As she removed the lid, the slick styrofoam cup flipped backwards, dumping scalding liquid into her lap, saturating the cotton sweatsuit she was wearing. Her grandson jumped out to help but near boiling coffee had already seared her skin.

McFact 4: She suffered third degree burns on her groin, inner thighs and buttocks, necessitating seven days in the hospital for extensive skin grafts and debridement. For another 3 weeks she was confined at home. She required another hospital stay for skin grafts, and dropped from 113 to 83 pounds. For a time her family was concerned about whether she would survive.

McFact 5: Ms. Liebeck offered to settle simply for her $20,000 in medical bills, but McDonald's only offered her $800 to settle her case

McFact 6: Suit was filed only after McDonald's refused to raise its offer, seeking $100,000 in compensatory damages and triple punitive or exemplary damages to send a message to McDonald's that their coffee was dangerously hot. She has stated she would have never brought the suit had McDonald's been willing to pay her medical bills.

McFact 7: The jury in this case decided that the coffee was a defective product (a coffee "McBomb") and that McDonald's had breached implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose. The jury also decided that the victim did bear some responsibility for what had happened, finding her twenty percent at fault. The jury awarded her $200,000.00 in compensatory damages and $2,700,000.00 in punitive damages (equivalent to two days' coffee sales for McDonald's.)

McFact 8: A month later, the judge reduced the jury's punitive award to $640,000 as this amount was approximately three times the compensatory damages. He stated the case "was not a runaway, " and that it was "appropriate to punish and deter" McDonald's corporate coffee policy.

After the verdict, there was massive criticism of the jury's decision with the result categorized as an example of how our civil justice system perpetuates "frivolous" lawsuits with "unjust" results.

Although the Ms. Liebeck never actually received $2.9 million, the case remains an example of how products liability law protects consumers. If the right to trial by jury is eroded by so-called court reform, a corporation would lack the incentive to be cautious about products or policies which harm, since it will become an easier business decision to reject incurring further cost to make a product safer once there is less liability to fear from lawsuits.

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