THE REAL STORY OF THE MCDONALD'S HOT COFFEE CASE
It was treated as a classic example of Court’s run amok and giving out money like candy to kids at Halloween. A woman driving in her car through a McDonald’s drive-thru carelessly spills coffee in her lap and then sues McDonald’s for her own negligence and is awarded $2.8 million dollars. This case became the butt of late night talk hosts, talking heads on news shows used it as an example of the messed up judicial system, and defense lawyers pointed to it as the jury system not working and being too generous to plaintiffs. The reality is far different. Let's look at the actual facts:
Stella Liebeck was a 79 year old woman who was not driving when her coffee spilled and was in fact in the passenger seat of a parked car when her cup of coffee was delivered. She placed the cup between her legs and took off the lid to add cream and sugar when the cup tipped over and spilled its contents into her lap. Stella sustained 3rd degree burns over her genitals and inner thighs which required multiple skin graft surgeries and resulting medical expenses in excess of $20,000.00. McDonald’s had a corporate policy of heating its coffee from 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit because it was believed that it made its Arabica coffee the most flavorful. Coffee at a temperature of 180 degrees causes 3rd-degree burns in 3 to 7 seconds of contact with human skin. The Chairman of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Biomechanical Engineering at the University of Texas testified on behalf of Stella that this risk of harm was unacceptable and too dangerous for coffee to be served to consumers. The Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation, a learned scholarly publication on burn injuries also testified and agreed that the level of risk was unacceptable to the coffee consuming public. McDonald’s admitted it had known the risk from its scalding hot coffee for more than 10 years and that the risk had been repeatedly brought to its corporate attention through numerous claims and lawsuits prior that of Stella. The expert witness hired by McDonald's testified that the number of burns was not statistically significant compared to the billions of cups of coffee served by McDonald's yearly. McDonald's Quality Assurance Manager testified that McDonald’s coffee at the temperature in which it was poured into styrofoam cups, was not fit for human consumption because of the potential to cause 3rd degree burns to the mouth and throat. McDonald’s corporate witnesses admitted at trial that consumers were not aware of the extent of the risk posed by its scalding hot coffee. Further, McDonald's corporate witnesses admitted to not warning consumers of the risk posed by its scalding coffee.
Stella was not the only person to have ever sued McDonald's over its scalding hot coffee and in fact, it was revealed at trial that McDonald’s had over 700 previous claims over its scalding hot coffee and McDonald's had paid out large sums in settlements. Prior to filing suit Stella offered to settle her case for $20,000.00 which would have come close to covering her medical expenses. McDonald's countered with $800.00 and the case was not settled and ended up going to trial. The jury found that Stella was partially at fault for her injuries but still awarded her $2.9 million for her injuries which was subsequently reduced 80% by the trial Judge. To avoid a lengthy appeal both sides settled for $600,000.00 and McDonald's changed how it heats its coffee by reducing the temperature to a less dangerous level.