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What Really Happened With The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case?

It’s the poster child of excessive lawsuits. It’s the product liability case against McDonald’s that represents greedy plaintiffs, clever lawyers and unreliable juries…right? Not quite. Here’s the real story. McDonald’s coffee wasn’t only hot, it was scalding. And McDonald’s knew it. It intentionally served scalding coffee knowing that a spill would cause devastating injuries. And yet, it didn’t do anything about it.

Stella Liebeck, 79, was a passenger in her grandson’s car when she ordered a $.49 coffee at an Albuquerque, New Mexico, McDonald’s drive-up window in February, 1992. After picking up the coffee, her grandson pulled forward but then stopped the car so that she could add cream and sugar. In trying to remove the plastic lid from the top of the cup, the hot coffee spilled into her lap. Her sweatpants absorbed the scalding liquid and held it next to her skin. She suffered third-degree burns on over 6% of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, genital and groin areas. The coffee literally melted her pubic area. 16% of her body was burned to some degree. She spent 8 days in the hospital. She underwent debridement procedures and received skin grafts to try to minimize permanent scarring on the scorched areas and restore her bodily functions. Still believe this is a frivolous lawsuit? Keep reading…

Ms. Liebeck tried to settle her claim for $20,000, but McDonald’s would hear nothing of it. So, a trial ensued and a jury heard the evidence. It heard that McDonald’s knew that more than 700(!) people had been burned by its coffee seriously enough to report it. It learned that burn centers across the country had repeatedly asked McDonald’s to lower its coffee temperature. It heard that McDonald’s knew other customers had received third-degree burns like Ms. Liebeck. The jury learned that, according to McDonald’s own consultant’s advice, the coffee was kept at between 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain “optimum taste.” This is in contrast to other mainstream establishments that sold coffee at substantially lower temperatures. Coffee served at home is usually 135 to 140 degrees.

The McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified at trial that the company not only knew that its coffee was kept so hot but that it actively enforced that requirement, despite knowing that a burn hazard exists with foods served at 140 degrees or above. The jury heard evidence that McDonald’s knew the coffee would burn the mouth and throat but that McDonald’s anticipated its consumers would wait until they got to work or home to drink it and by then it would be drinkable. However, research showed that this wasn’t the case and that people actually were trying to drink their coffee directly after it had been poured.

Based on the knowing behavior of the McDonald’s corporation, the jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which are damages that are meant to punish a defendant for its egregiously poor behavior and lack of social conduct. This seemingly large verdict equaled only TWO DAYS of McDonald’s coffee sales in 1992.

Despite the judge finding McDonald’s conduct “reckless, callous and willful,” he reduced Ms. Liebeck’s punitive award to $480,000. In the end, Ms. Liebeck actually received $640,000 for the third-degree burns that penetrated deep into 6% of her skin from McDonald’s careless actions. The amount that finally went to Ms. Liebeck was then again decreased by her medical bills. Post-verdict research showed that McDonald’s now serves coffee at a more reasonable, less likely to scald, temperature of 135 degrees.

Was this case a failure of America’s civil justice system? I think not. In contrast, Ms. Liebeck, a 79-year-old grandmother, was brave enough to take on this consumer giant and change its procedures and policies so that future consumers (maybe you!) wouldn’t suffer the same way she did. Next time someone talks about this case as an example of a runaway jury, or as an unnecessarily large verdict, I urge you to ask them to look at the facts and ask them what they think third-degree burns to their genitals are worth.