The McDonalds Coffee Case

By Gregory Wonderwheel

This was my column Ipse Dixit #4 in Empire Law School's newsletter In Brief.

 When considering the arguments for so-called tort "reform," we must remember to check the factual bases of the legends upon which the movement gains much of its motivation. One example is the mythic McDonalds coffee case.

One critic stated, "Major problems arise when awards for accidents are vastly disproportional to harm done (e.g., the McDonalds coffee case where the lady who was stupid enough to drive with an open cup of hot coffee in her hand received $4 million+ in damages because she scalded herself.)." Another criticizing a different case said, "And no, it was not the same trial lawyer who tried, and almost got, several million dollars for the woman who spilled a cup of hot McDonalds coffee in her lap."

The Law Offices of Saunders & Schmieler, of Silver Spring, Maryland, reported, "An eighty-one year old woman scalded by McDonald's coffee was recently awarded 2.9 million dollars. A public opinion survey taken subsequently is squarely on the side of McDonalds. Polls have shown that a majority of Americans are outraged at the verdict." Unfortunately, most Americans don't know the facts of the case. Here are the facts as found in the Saunders & Schmieler report (see example case #2 in their publication on liability exposure) and in a report from the Consumer Attorneys of California. (Both found on the internet.)

Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was in the passenger seat of her grandson's car when she was severely burned by McDonalds' coffee in February 1992. Liebeck, 79 at the time, ordered coffee that was served in a styrofoam cup at the drive through window of a local McDonalds. After receiving the order, the grandson pulled his car forward and stopped momentarily so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Contrary to legend, Liebeck was not driving the car nor was the vehicle in motion. Liebeck placed the cup between her knees to remove the plastic lid from the cup. As she removed the lid, the entire contents of the cup spilled into her lap.

The sweatpants Liebeck was wearing absorbed the coffee and held it next to her skin. A vascular surgeon determined she suffered full thickness burns (or third-degree burns) over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. She was hospitalized for eight days, and underwent several skin grafts and debridement treatments. She alleged that the coffee was "defective because it was too hot." She initially sought to settle her claim for $20,000, but McDonalds refused.

During discovery, McDonalds produced documents showing more than 700 claims for burn injuries by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some claims involved third-degree burns substantially similar to Liebeck's.

Further, McDonalds' quality assurance manager testified that the company actively enforces a requirement that coffee be held between 180 and 190 degrees. The testimony showed that McDonalds knew its coffee sometimes caused serious burns, it hadn't consulted burn experts about it; it had decided not to warn customers about the possibility of severe burns; and it did not intend to change any of its coffee policies or procedures. A human factors engineer who testified for McDonalds told the jury that the number of injuries were statistically insignificant when compared to the billion cups of coffee McDonalds sells annually.

Plaintiffs' expert, a scholar in thermodynamics 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. Other establishments sell coffee at substantially lower temperatures, and coffee served at home is generally 135 to 140 degrees.

McDonalds 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. McDonalds also argued that consumers know coffee is hot and that its customers want it that way, but the company later admitted its customers were unaware that they could suffer third degree burns from the coffee.

McDonalds had settled other claims arising from scalding injuries for more than $500,000.00. The Plaintiff's lawyer immediately prior to trial offered to settle for $300,000.00. A mediator judge recommended that McDonalds settle the case for $225,000.00. McDonalds alleged that the Plaintiff was contributorily negligent by holding the cup between her legs and not removing her clothing immediately. It also argued the old "eggshell" theory that the Plaintiff's age may have caused her injuries to have been worse because older skin is thinner and more vulnerable to injury.        

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, which equals about two days of McDonalds' coffee sales. The trial court subsequently reduced the punitive award to $480,000 -- or three times compensatory damages -- even though the judge called McDonalds' conduct reckless, callous and willful.

Post-verdict investigation found that the temperature of coffee at the local Albuquerque McDonalds had dropped to 158 degrees fahrenheit. No one will ever know the final ending to this case because the parties eventually entered into a secret settlement.

I fail to see how any of these facts warrant any reform in Tort law, except maybe that Judges should be restrained from overruling jury awards. It is clear from the facts that McDonalds made a calculated decision based on the estimated cost basis to ignore a direct danger it posed to the public. Without that cost being as high as the jury's award, big businesses like McDonalds will continue making decisions based on their monetary interests alone without regard for the public interest.