What we Learned from McDonald's Hot Coffee Case
The coffee was not just “hot,” but dangerously hot. McDonald’s corporate policy was to serve the coffee at a temperature that could cause serious burns in just seconds. Ms. Liebeck was wearing sweatpants that absorbed the coffee and kept it against her skin. She suffered third-degree burns and required skin grafts. Liebeck’s case was also not far from an isolated event. McDonald’s had received more than 700 previous reports of injury from its coffee, including reports of third-degree burns, and had paid settlements in some cases. Moreover, the Shriner’s Burn Institute in Cincinnati had published warnings to the franchise food industry that its members were unnecessarily causing serious burns by serving beverages above 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
Stella Liebeck, was 79 years old, sitting in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car with a cup of McDonald’s coffee. After the car stopped, she tried to hold the cup securely between her knees while removing the lid. However, the cup tipped over, pouring scalding hot coffee onto her. She received third-degree burns over 16 percent of her body, requiring hospitalization for eight days, skin grafting, scarring, and disability for more than two years.The areas which had full thickness injury had to have skin grafts for coverage. Ms. Liebeck brought a suit against McDonalds and was apparently willing to settle for $20,000 but McDonalds made a strategic decision to fight the claim. This turned out to be a bad business decision for McDonalds but a good decision for the rest of the public.
McDonalds kept their coffee temperature between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit. They used this temperature based on a consultant’s advice that this was the range needed for the best taste and McDonalds admitted that they had not studied the dangers associated with these high temperatures. It is also important to note that other fast food restaurants sold their coffee at significantly lower temperatures and that coffee served by people in their homes was in the 135-140 degree range.
The Plaintiff’s expert on thermodynamics related to skin burns testified that liquids at 180 degrees would cause a full-thickness burn to human skin in two to seven seconds. As the temperature of the liquid fell to 155 degrees the likelihood of a burn injury also falls exponentially. Essentially if the coffee served to Ms. Liebeck was 155 degrees she would have avoided significant injury when she spilled it.
The case is considered by some to be an example of frivolous litigation. ABC News called the case "the poster child of excessive lawsuits". Jonathan Turley called the case "a meaningful and worthy lawsuit". McDonald's asserts that the outcome of the case was a fluke, and attributed the loss to poor communications and strategy by an unfamiliar insurer representing a franchise. Detractors also highlighted the fact that Liebeck spilled the coffee on herself rather than any wrongdoing on the company's part. Liebeck’s opponents argued that the vast majority of judges who consider similar cases dismiss them before they get to a jury but the judge and jury in this case saw the merits of Ms. Liebeck’s claim and she was awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages after the jury trial. The compensatory damages were reduced to $160,000 because the jury found that Liebeck was at fault for 20 percent of the spill. Even though the punitive damages award seemed high, it only amounted to about two days’ worth of national coffee sales for McDonalds at that time.
One of the main benefits emanating from the trial was revealed when a post-verdict investigation showed that that temperature of the coffee at the local Albuquerque McDonalds had been reduced to 158 degrees Fahrenheit, a level still dangerous but less likely to cause injury if spilled. Perhaps the system worked after all. A products liability case with a high monetary award resulted in a much safer product. The case was not so “frivolous” after all.
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