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McDonalds’ scalding coffee case

Posted On September 15, 2013 In Personal Injury

There is a lot of hype about the McDonalds’ scalding coffee case.  No one is in favor of frivolous cases of outlandish results; however, it is important to understand some points that were not reported in most of the stories about the case.  McDonalds coffee was not only hot, it was scalding — capable of almost instantaneous destruction of skin, flesh and muscle.  Here’s the whole story.

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 drivethrough 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. (Critics of civil justice, who have pounced on this case, often charge that Liebeck was driving the car or that the vehicle was in motion when she spilled the coffee; neither is true.)  Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and attempted 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 that Liebeck 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, during which time she underwent skin grafting. Liebeck, who also underwent debridement treatments, sought to settle her claim for $20,000, but McDonalds refused.

During discovery, McDonalds produced documents showing more than 700 claims by people who suffered severe burns from its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some claims involved third-degree burns substantially similar to Liebecks. This history documented McDonalds’ knowledge about the extent and nature of the burn hazard to its customers from serving coffee at 185 degrees as opposed to the industry standard of 135-145.

In its pre-trial discovery responses, McDonalds’ claimed that, based on a consultant’s advice, it stored its coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees fahrenheit to “maintain optimum taste.”  (McDonald’s actually used special holding pots which held the coffee under pressure to prevent it from evaporating off at the near boiling temperature.)  At trial, McDonald’s corporate representative admitted that he had not evaluated the safety ramifications of serving coffee at this temperature.  Additionally, there was conflicting evidence that suggested the real reason McDonald’s brewed and stored coffee at such high tempature was to increase profits because the company was able to brew the same strength product using less coffee grounds using the higher tempatures.  Other establishments sell coffee at substantially lower temperatures, and home coffee makers generally produce coffee at 135 to 140 degrees.

On cross examination, McDonald’s Corporate Representative also admitted:

  • A burn hazard exists with any food substance served at 140 degrees or above,
  • McDonalds coffee, at the temperature at which it was served to customers was unfit for human consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat, and
  • Despite the fact that burns would occur 100% of the time for any person who actually drank the coffee at the temperature served, McDonalds had no intention of reducing the “holding temperature” of its coffee.

The 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 Ms. Liebeck’s spill had involved coffee at 155 degrees, the liquid would have cooled and given her time to avoid a serious burn.

At trial, McDonalds defended it’s extremely high temperature coffee by claiming 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.  However, the company admitted its customers were unaware of the increased tempature of McDonald’s coffee or that they could suffer third degree burns.  The company also admitted that a statement on the side of the cup was not a “warning” but a

“reminder” since the location of the writing would not warn customers of the actual tempature of the coffee or increased burn hazard.

How Much Money the Jury Really Awarded & How Much Ms. Liebeck          Actually Received

The jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $200,000 in actual damages.  [Think 8 days in the hospital and 3 skin graft surgeries to repair 3rd degree burns of the inner thighs, genitals, and buttocks.]  The award was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Liebeck 20 percent at fault in causing the spill.

Punitive Damages

The jury found McDonald’s grossly negligent because of its actual knowledge of the extreme risk of burns caused by the excessively hot coffee and failure to lower the temperature.  [Remember the 700 prior burn claims that McDonald’s lost at trial or paid settlement money to the victims without changing the coffee temperature.]  The plaintiff’s lawyer argued that McDonald’s had proven 700 times before Ms. Liebeck was burned that it would not going to change a thing unless someone made them.  The Plaintiff’s attorney therefore asked the jury to take away one week’s worth of profit that McDonald’s made on coffee.   The jury awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages [about two days of McDonalds’ coffee sales].

However, the trial judge reduced the jury’s punitive damages award to $480,000 (equal to three times the actual damages)  The trial judge reduced the punitive damage award based on prior appeals court rulings despite the fact that he specifically found McDonalds’ conduct “Reckless, Callous and Willful.”

Did the Jury System Work?

Post-verdict investigation found that, after the case was over, the temperature of coffee at the local Albuquerque McDonalds dropped to 158 degrees Fahrenheit.

How Much of the Jury Award did Ms. Liebeck Eventually Collect?

No one will ever know the final ending to this case.  The parties eventually entered into a confidential settlement.  All the public knows is that the parties settled the case somewhere between $0 and $640,000.00

As Paul Harvey would say: Now you know the ‘Rest of the Story.’

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