Liebeck v. McDonald'sThe Case Where Public Perception Reveals its Limitations

Almost everyone has heard of this infamous case decided in 1994, and many have strong opinions depending on what version of the facts they have heard.

Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. 1994), is commonly referred to or otherwise known as the hot coffee case. In the case, 79 year old Stella Liebeck suffered third degree burns to her pelvic region when she accidentally spilled the hot coffee that she had purchased from a McDonald's drive thru.

On the day of the incident, Liebeck's grandson was driving, and parked the car so that she could put cream and sugar in her coffee. When she pulled back the lid, the entire cup spilled into her lap, becoming absorbed into her cotton sweatpants, which then held the scalding liquid against her body.

The burns were quite intense, in sum covering 16 percent of her body, 6 percent of which were third degree, and causing her to lose 20 pounds, bringing her total weight down to 83 lbs. She was in the hospital for 8 days of treatment, including skin grafts, and her additional treatments lasted for some 2 years.

The jury awarded $160,000 for medical expenses and compensatory damages, and $2.7 million in punitive damages. However, the trial judge reduced the award amount, and the parties reached a confidential settlement prior to the pending appeal.

Here's the kicker, Liebeck offered to settle the case for $20,000 before trial, which included her already incurred medical expenses, and those she anticipated to incur for future treatment. McDonald's settlement offer was for $800.

How Hot Was the Coffee, You Ask?

The nature of the claim was interestingly based upon a product's liability claim, which alleged that the coffee was defective, because it was too hot, and thus more likely to cause an injury than coffee served in other establishments. During the trial, plaintiff's counsel discovered that McDonald's required its franchisees to serve its coffee at 180–190 °F , which would cause a third-degree burn in two to seven seconds. Her attorney claimed that coffee should be served no hotter than 140 °F, and offered proof that other establishments served it cooler.

McDonald's justification for serving such hot coffee in its drive-through windows was for the benefit of commuters who wanted the coffee to remain hot throughout a long drive. However, event the company's own research showed that at least some customers intend to consume the coffee immediately while driving. 

Apparently, the basis for the seemingly high punitive damages award, was based on plaintiff's counsel's suggestion to penalize McDonald's for one or two days' worth of coffee revenues, which were about $1.35 million per day. (It was also revealed at trial that McDonald's had received some 700 other claims of burn injuries due to the coffee being too hot, and had already settled claims totaling more than $500,000 for burning incidents)

I chose to write about this case, because I believe it is a situation in which knowing the facts of the case demonstrates that popular opinion is not always an accurate depiction of a lawsuit. You have a 79 year old woman who suffered severe burns on 16% of her body, and McDonald's wasn't even willing to cover the amount of her medical costs, eventhough they didn't even amount to 2% of the total they make on coffee sales alone in one day!

Additionally, I don't know about you, but after their major coffee relaunch, meant to do battle with Starbucks, I have on occasion picked up a cup of coffee from McDonald's drive thru, and let me tell you, it is probably still too hot. In fact, on one occasion, as the girl was handing me the cup, the lid popped off, and hot coffee spilled all over my hand and outside of my car. Ever since that incident, I have felt even more sympathetic to the plaintiff in this case.

Here is a great article about the case, if you want to learn more.

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