on December 21, 2011
by Robert L. Guehl

MYTHBUSTERS: McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case = Frivolous Lawsuit?

In questioning before jury selection in civil injury trials, the topic of “frivolous lawsuits” inevitably comes up, in the form of questions to the jury pool: “Do you think there are too many frivolous lawsuits?” When the answer is yes, and the followup asks for an example, the inevitable response is “the McDonald’s hot coffee case.

It amazes me that so much misinformation is believed by jurors - but then again, isn’t it in the best interest of insurance companies to have juries with a preconceived bias against folks who take their injury case to court?

The truth about the infamous 1994 McDonald’s case is quite different from what you may have heard:

– 79-year-old Stella Liebeck was a passenger seated in a parked car when the injury occurred. The coffee spilled when she attempted to remove the cup’s lid to add cream and sugar.

– She was wearing cotton sweatpants which absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin, scalding her thighs, buttocks, and groin.

– Liebeck suffered third-degree burns on six percent of her skin and lesser burns over sixteen percent.

– She suffered very serious third degree burns on her thighs, buttocks, and genitals from the spill; she was hospitalized for eight days, lost 20 pounds, and endured several skin grafts. Two years of medical treatment followed.

– Liebeck originally sought to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000 to cover her actual and anticipated expenses. Her past medical expenses were $10,500; her anticipated future medical expenses were approximately $2,500; and her loss of income was approximately $5,000 for a total of approximately $18,000. McDonald’s offered only $800.

– McDonald’s required franchisees to serve coffee at 180–190 °F (82–88 °C). At that temperature, the coffee would cause a third-degree burn in two to seven seconds.

–  McDonald’s claimed that the reason for serving such hot coffee in its drive-through windows was that those who purchased the coffee typically were commuters who wanted to drive a distance with the coffee; the high initial temperature would keep the coffee hot during the trip.

– The company had received more than 700 prior reports of burn injuries, including third degree burns similar to those Liebeck suffered.

McDonald’s was well aware of the extent and nature of this hazard.  McDonald’s own quality assurance manager testified that a burn hazard exists with any food served above 140 degrees; their coffee was kept warm at 185 degrees.

After trial to a jury of twelve citizens, they awarded Ms. Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages, but reduced it to $160,000 because they found her 20 percent at fault for the spill.  The jury also awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages, equal to two days of McDonald’s coffee sales.  This was eventually reduced to $480,000, even though the judge called McDonald’s conduct reckless, callous, and willful.  Jurors expressed similar sentiments in interviews after the trial.  Ms. Liebeck and McDonald’s eventually reached a confidential post-verdict settlement.

The myths surrounding the McDonald’s Coffee case need to be dispelled. HBO premiered a documentary about the problems with tort reform recently, with the film titled “Hot Coffee”, which premiered on June 27, 2011. The film also discusses in great depth how Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants is often used and misused to describe a frivolous lawsuit and referenced in conjunction with tort reform efforts.

A basic principle of the negligence system is that each of us has an obligation to protect, not only ourselves, but other people when we can take reasonable steps to do so. That principle makes both moral and economic sense.



American Association for Justice

“Do You Know the Full Story Behind the Infamous McDonald’s Coffee Case and How Corporations Used it to Promote Tort Reform?”

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