McDonald's Coffee Case: Lawsuit Verdict Defended

Liebeck v. McDonald’s, “The McDonald’s Coffee Case”, has been widely misreported and misunderstood. The jury’s award was for $200,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million for punitive damages (equal to only 2 days of McDonald’s coffee sales). Punitive damages were allowed because McDonalds’ conduct was deemed reckless, callous, and willful.

Stella Liebeck was found 20% negligent, reducing the compensatory damages to $160,000. Then the trial judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000. She did not receive that amount. An undisclosed post-verdict settlement was reached.

This case is cited as a reason for the need for tort reform laws. In actuality, it is an example of how the system works effectively. The media tends to focus on a few random cases, presenting a false perception that the system is overflowing with frivolous lawsuits. Often these random verdicts have either been thrown out or substantially reduced by trial judges or appellate courts, which is exactly how the system was designed to work.

The following is quoted from an article by S. Reed Morgan, plaintiff’s attorney, explaining and defending the McDonald’s lawsuit verdict.

I am the trial lawyer who tried Stella Liebeck’s case.

There has been a great amount of uproar from those persons displeased at the size of the verdict, who have heralded this verdict as an example of a runaway jury and individuals who will not accept responsibility for their own actions.

This cannot be true since McDonald’s witnesses admitted that nobody knows or expects that spilled coffee will cause the severe type of burns that McDonald’s coffee causes as a result of its being sold at a temperature of 180 to 190 degrees.

Stella Liebeck; at age 79, purchased a cup of McDonald’s coffee while she was a passenger in her grandson’s automobile. Her grandson pulled to the curb and stopped the car, and Mrs. Liebeck attempted to hold the cup securely between her knees while she removed the plastic lid.

It was at this time that it tipped over, causing third-degree burns.

The jury is the voice of the community. It awarded $200,000 to her for compensatory damages, reduced by $20,000 for her negligence, and $2.7 million in punishment for punitive damages.

The Court of Appeals can set it aside if it’s wrong.

It cost more than $50,000 to prosecute this case in costs alone, not including legal fees. If the jury had not stopped them, who would do it? How long would this have gone on?

Further, the system has numerous safeguards to overturn any verdict, including this one, if it is, in fact, excessive, not the least of which is an appeal.

To set the record straight, the following information was presented to an impartial jury of six men and six women for six days, which resulted in a finding that the product is unreasonably dangerous, and it is sold in breach of the implied warranty of fitness imposed by the Uniform Commercial Code. It is not fit for consumption.

Obviously, the jury found that McDonald’s coffee has caused enough human misery and suffering, and no one should be made to suffer for being exposed to the sale of excessively hot coffee at McDonald’s and other establishments.

You will be shocked and amazed to learn what was proved at trial:

  • McDonald’s Corporation sells its coffee at 180°-190°F by corporate specifications.
  • McDonald’s coffee, if spilled, causes full thickness burns (third-degree to the muscle/fatty tissue layer) in 2-7 seconds.
  • Third-degree burns do not heal without skin grafting, debridement, and whirlpool treatments that cost tens of thousands of dollars and results in permanent disfigurement, extreme pain, and disability to the victims for many months, and in some cases, years.
  • McDonald’s Corporation has known about this unacceptable risk for more than 10 years and it was brought to their attention through other suits (more than 700 reported claims from 1982-1992), repeatedly, to no avail. McDonald’s produced a witness who said this number of burned people was statistically “trivial”.
  • Witnesses for McDonald’s admitted in court that the consumers are unaware of this risk of serious burns and that McDonald’s Corporation is and has been aware of this risk.
  • McDonald’s Corporation testified through its witnesses, that it did not intend to turn down the heat.
  • McDonald’s admitted that it did not warn of the nature and extent of this risk of harm and could offer no explanation as to why it did not.
  • McDonald’s Corporation admitted its coffee is “not fit for consumption” when sold because it will cause severe scalds if spilled or drunk.
  • McDonald’s Corporation has burned more than 700 people over the past 10 years, many with severe burns to the genital area, perineum, inner thighs, and buttocks.
  • Mrs. Liebeck’s treating physician testified this was one of the worst scald burns he had ever seen and that this risk of harm was unacceptable.
  • The chairman of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and BioMechanical Engineering at the University of Texas testified this risk of harm is unacceptable, as did the most widely publicized burn doctor in the United States, who is the editor-in-chief of the Burn and Rehabilitation Journal, the most widely recognized burn journal in the world.
  • McDonald’s Corporation generates revenues in excess of $1.3 million daily from the sale of the coffee, selling 1 billion cups of coffee each year.
  • McDonald’s Corporation has burned not only men and women but children and infants with their scalding hot coffee, in some instances due to inadvertent spillage by their own employees.
  • At least one individual had scalding hot coffee dropped in her lap through the service window, resulting in third-degree burns to her inner thighs and other sensitive areas of the body, resulting in disability for years.

I have recently been contacted by the heirs of a lady that went into diabetic shock and died as the result of being burned at McDonald’s.

In short, the consumer may be guilty of one second of momentary inadvertence or a mistake resulting in horrible, excruciatingly painful, disfiguring, expensive and life-threatening injuries.

Compare the behavior of McDonald’s, a family restaurant that caters to children, which was unequivocally shown to have known of and ignored this risk for more than 10 years, whose quality-control manager testified that he knows the consumer is unaware of the risk and knows the consumer does not anticipate that it will cause these very serious burns.

The consumer does not know that coffee this hot causes these injuries. Nor do they know it’s served this hot.

We had to teach McDonald’s that for every degree above 140 degrees Fahrenheit, our skin burns twice as fast. At 180 degrees Fahrenheit, there is no escape from these types of burns. The product is, by definition, defective or unreasonably dangerous. This is the applicable law. They broke the law.

Why had they not studied this risk? They have laboratories and a university devoted to the study of selling food and drinks. They had a legal duty to sell safe products, not products with a hidden risk.

McDonald’s testified through management that it had no intention of lowering the temperature:

“No, there is no current plan to change the procedure that we’re
using in that regard right now.”

This is callous indifference to the welfare of its consumers.

The jury applied the law of punitive damages to deter McDonald’s and other similarly situated corporations from exposing consumers to this risk by imposing a penalty of two days worth of coffee sales, or $2.7 million, for willfully ignoring the safety of children, women and men that feed the McDonald’s money tree.

So, the issue is why should we tolerate this kind of irresponsibility?

Is this an individual who didn’t take responsibility, or a corporation that didn’t take responsibility? The jury found 20 percent against Mrs. Liebeck and 80 percent against McDonald’s.

The risk of serious burns above 130 degrees has been well documented by the Shriners Burn Center which has published warnings to the franchise food industry that it is unnecessarily causing serious scald burns.

McDonald’s admitted it never, in all these years, consulted a single burn doctor or thermo-dynamics. Our firm did, and presented this to the jury in Albuquerque, which in turn did what is necessary to remedy the problem.

Interestingly the news media, the day after the verdict, documented that coffee at McDonald’s in Albuquerque is now sold at 158 degrees. Mission accomplished.

This will cause third-degree burns in about 60 seconds, rather than in two to seven seconds. The margin of safety has been increased as a direct consequence of this verdict.

This information is provided by TSR Injury Law. Our attorneys have beeny named Minnesota Super Lawyers many times by their peers. Chuck Slane was voted one of the 2009 Minnesota Top 40 Personal Injury Lawyers and Rich Ruohonen was singled out to receive the Minnesota Association for Justice 2008-09 Excellence Award. Call 612-TSR-TIME or submit our contact form.