The famous/infamous "McDonald's Coffee Spill Lawsuit" revisited
Everybody “knows” the story: A lady bought coffee at a McDonald’s drive-through, spilled it on herself, and suffered minor burns. She sued McDonald’s, and with the help of a clever injury attorney, managed to convince a jury that it was all McDonalds’ fault for not providing adequate warning that hot coffee is indeed hot, and can scald you. The lady walked away with a multi-million dollar award.
The case has entered the popular culture as a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the justice system: frivolous lawsuits, unscrupulous attorneys, unreliable juries, greedy plaintiffs who blame others for their own mistakes, and judges who aid and abet the whole sordid process.
The McDonald’s Coffee Spill Case is a classic example of “miscarriage of justice,” right? Wrong.
Slip-and-sue.com has researched what really happened. When one looks at the real facts of the case, an entirely different picture emerges than the one painted by typical retellings of the story…
The plaintiff and the spill incident. The plaintiff, a 79-year-old grandmother named Stella Liebeck, was not driving, nor was the vehicle moving when the injury occurred. While the car was stopped, Mrs. Liebeck, who was sitting in the passenger seat, tried to hold the coffee cup between her knees as she removed the lid. The cup tipped over, spilling the contents into her lap.
The injury. Mrs. Liebeck’s injury was anything but trivial. The scalding-hot coffee caused third-degree burns over 16% of her body, including her genital area. She had to be hospitalized for eight days. She required extensive skin grafts and was permanently scarred. She was disabled for a period of two years. During the ensuing trial, Mrs. Liebeck’s physician testified that her injury was one of the worst cases of scalding he’d ever seen.
The coffee. At the time, McDonalds’ corporate specifications explicitly called for coffee to be served at a temperature between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit. An expert witness testified that liquids at this temperature will cause third degree burns of human skin in two to seven seconds. (Coffee served at home is typically 135 to 140 degrees.)
McDonalds’ culpability. During discovery, McDonald’s was required to produce corporate documents of similar cases. More than 700(!) claims had been made against McDonald’s, and many of the victims had suffered third-degree burns similar to Mrs. Liebeck’s. Yet the company had refused to change its policy, supposedly because a consultant had recommended the high temperature as a way to maintain optimum taste. Some have speculated that the real reason for the high temperature was to slow down consumption of the coffee, reducing the demand for free refills.
Greed? Despite the pain caused by her injury, and the lengthy and expensive treatments she required, Mrs. Liebeck originally offered to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000. The corporation offered her a mere $800, so the case went to trial.
The settlement. The jury awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages to Mrs. Liebeck, which was reduced to $160,000 because the jury felt that only 80% of the fault lay with McDonald’s, and 20% with her. They also awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages, essentially as punishment of McDonald’s for its callous treatment of Mrs. Liebeck, and its years of ignoring hundreds of similar injuries. This amount was held to be reasonable given that it represented only two days’ worth of McDonalds’ revenue from coffee sales alone. The trial judge reduced the punitive damages, however, to $480,000. After further negotiation, Mrs. Liebeck ultimately received $640,000.
The aftermath. In subsequent investigations, it was found that the Albuquerque McDonalds where the incident occurred had reduced the temperature of its coffee to 158 degrees. The corporation as a whole ultimately changed its policies as well, and now explicitly forbids serving coffee at the scalding temperatures that injured Mrs. Liebeck. There is no way of knowing how many additional injuries have been prevented by this case, which forced McDonald’s to change its policies, and which has doubtlessly served as a warning to other restaurants as well.
So what’s the bottom line? The case was neither about a gold-digger, nor a defendant that was taken to the cleaners based on a flimsy pretext. Rather, a huge corporation had knowingly injured hundreds of people as the direct result of a needlessly dangerous corporate policy, and was finally held accountable by one of the victims. The loss to McDonald’s soon disappeared behind the decimal point in its financial statements, in which not the dollar, but the million is the unit of reporting. Mrs. Liebeck’s financial gain hardly made her rich, but it did serve as reasonable compensation for her extensive medical bills—and for the extensive pain and suffering that her injury caused her.
Those interested in reading more about the case can find additional documentation here, here, and here.