Tolleson, DL. “The McDonald’s Cup of Coffee Case.”
Tolleson, DL. “The McDonald’s Cup of Coffee Case.”
Within a matter of days many of the more than 700 responses made comparisons to the case of the woman who, many believed, manipulated the legal system into forcing McDonald’s to pay her money because she spilled hot coffee on herself.
And so years after it happened, people are still infuriated that such tremendous amounts of money were awarded in a case that was obviously frivolous—or at least that is what nearly everyone always says, happened.
The facts, however, indicate that the people advocating this case as a miscarriage of justice, are wrong...
In February of 1992 elderly Stella Liebeck was in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car when she was severely burned by coffee served in a Styrofoam cup at the drive-through window of a McDonald’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
After receiving the order, the grandson pulled his car forward and stopped momentarily so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee.
Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup. As she removed the lid, the entire contents of the cup spilled into her lap. The sweat pants she was wearing absorbed the coffee, thus holding it next to her skin.
• Question 1: Did Liebeck incur injury?
• Question 2: If Liebeck incurred injury, was McDonald’s liable?
• Question 3: Was Liebeck at fault for the coffee spill?
With regard to Question 1, Liebeck did incur injury. Addressing this during trial a vascular surgeon determined that Liebeck suffered full thickness burns (or third-degree burns) to over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting.
She also underwent debridement treatments.
• Debridement is a painful process involving the removal of lacerated, devitalized, or contaminated skin tissue. In a burn case it usually requires repeated removal of tissues that accumulate between daily wound cleanings.
With regard to Question 2, Liebeck sought compensation from McDonald’s and prior to trial offered to settle her claim for $20,000. The company denied liability and refused to settle.
During discovery (a litigation process requiring parties to reveal information to each other), McDonald’s produced documents showing more than 700 claims by people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some of these claims involved third-degree burns substantially similar to Liebeck’s injury. These claims documented McDonald’s knowledge about the extent and nature of their scalding hot coffee.
McDonald’s also said during discovery that, based on a consultant’s advice, it held its coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain optimum taste. Their representative admitted that he had not evaluated the safety ramifications at this temperature. However, other establishments were shown to sell coffee at substantially lower temperatures, and coffee served at home is generally 135 to 140 degrees, which is 40 to 55 degrees less than McDonald’s “holding temperature.”
Further, McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that the company actively enforced a requirement that coffee be held in the pot at 185 degrees, plus or minus five degrees. He also testified that a burn hazard exists with any food substance served at 140 degree or above, and that McDonald’s coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into Styrofoam cups, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat. The quality assurance manager admitted that burns would occur at McDonald’s coffee holding temperature, but testified that the company “had no intention of reducing the temperature.”
A Plaintiff’s expert, a scholar in thermodynamics as applied to human skin burns, testified that liquids, at 180 degrees, will cause a full thickness burn to human skin in two to seven seconds. Other testimony showed that as the temperature decreases toward 155 degrees, the extent of the burn relative to that temperature decreases exponentially. Thus, if Liebeck’s spill had involved coffee at 155 degrees, the liquid would have cooled and given her time to avoid a serious burn.
McDonald’s asserted that customers buy coffee on their way to work or home, intending to consume it there. However, the company’s own research showed that customers intend to consume the coffee immediately while driving. McDonald’s also argued that consumers know coffee is hot and that its customers want it that way. Conversely, the company admitted its customers were unaware that they could suffer third-degree burns from the coffee and that a statement on the side of the cup was not a “warning” but a “reminder” since the location of the writing would not warn customers of the hazard.
The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. This amount was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Liebeck 20 percent at fault in the spill. The jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, (money awarded as a way of punishing McDonald’s) which equaled about two days of McDonald’s coffee sales. The trial court subsequently reduced the punitive award to $480,000—or three times compensatory damages—even though the judge called McDonald’s conduct “reckless, callous and willful.”
At 1.35 million dollars a day in coffee sales, McDonald’s could easily afford a ten year period of settling a little over 700 cases.
McDonald’s had denied those 700 previous injuries, but even if McDonald’s had paid out $20,000 (Liebeck’s initial settlement offer) for each of the those claims they would have paid $14,000,000 (that’s $20,000 x 700 cases during a 10 year period) while earning $486,000,000.00 (that’s 1.3 million dollars per day multiplied by the 3,650 days that constitute 10 years).
So those people were injured as just a part of doing business. In other words, McDonald’s earned about 486 million dollars and they didn't really care if 700 people were burned by coffee that was dangerously hotter than coffee served by anyone else in the industy.
Why, that’s just good business isn’t it? Even if you were one of the people that required skin grafts, right?
Ms. Liebeck was injured and ignored by an insensitive and unconcerned company that was “reckless, callous and willful” (according to the judge) in continuing a dangerous practice even though people had been injured hundreds of times—all in the name of profit.
Post Script: Post-verdict investigation found that the temperature of coffee at the local Albuquerque McDonald’s had dropped to 158 degrees Fahrenheit.