As I sat in the McDonald’s drive through this morning, waiting for a cup of coffee, I thought about the case that was on everyone’s mind 18 years ago.
For almost two decades, the McDonald’s coffee case has been the poster child for tort reform in the U. S. Every time I interview a jury panel in a civil case, the McDonald’s coffee case comes up as an example of runaway jury verdicts. There never is enough time to educate the jury panel about the actual facts of the case, nor would I be able to change some of their minds, even if I could tell them what the case was about. However, the case can be instructive to all of us in drawing conclusions from a situation without knowing all of the facts.
Most people on my jury panels think that a woman drove up to a McDonald’s drive through, ordered coffee, put the cup between her legs, and while driving and trying to fiddle with the coffee, spilled it on herself. Because she suffered a slight burn and sued McDonald’s, some liberal runaway jury awarded her millions leaving her without damage and a huge windfall. Here is the Paul Harvey “rest of the story.” You decide whether the jury was out to lunch, or if the decision that they made was more rational than you first thought.
In 1992, Stella Liebeck, 79, was riding in her grandson’s car. He bought her a cup of 49-cent coffee at the drive through and pulled into a parking space at the Albuquerque McDonald’s so that both could put cream and sugar in their coffee. While removing the lid, Ms. Liebeck, who was the passenger, spilled the entire contents of the cup into her lap. She was wearing sweatpants which absorbed the liquid and held it next to her skin. The coffee caused third degree burns to her groin, inner thighs and buttocks in less than 7 seconds. She was hospitalized for eight days where she underwent skin grafting and debridement (dead skin removal) treatments. Click here for a picture of her burns. (Warning – these are graphic)
After being discharged from the hospital, Ms. Liebeck attempted to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000, which was basically her out of pocket expenses. At the time, her medical expenses were $10,500, her future medical expenses were estimated at $2,500 and her loss of income was approximately $5,000. McDonald’s offered her $800. At mediation prior to the trial, the mediator, a retired state judge, advised McDonald’s to accept the $225,000 settlement proposed by Liebeck, but McDonald’s refused to settle and demanded a jury trial. Here is what the jury heard as reported in the Wall Street Journal on September 1, 1994:
1. McDonald’s operations and training manual requires its coffee to be brewed at 195 to 205 degrees and held at 180 to 190 degrees.
2. No other coffee establishment in Albuquerque kept its coffee at a temperature above 160 degrees. Home coffee makers generally maintain coffee at 135-140 degrees.
3. McDonald’s had received at least 700 complaints of coffee burns from 1982 to 1992, and had settled claims arising from scalding injuries for more than $500,000.
4. McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that McDonald’s was aware of the fact that their coffee caused serious burns, but the company had not chosen to consult any burn experts and he said that they had no plans to change their policies. He also stated that even though most people did not realize that serious burns were possible from a coffee spill, McDonald’s had decided not to warn their customers about this possibility. Further, he testified that coffee at 180 degrees was not fit for human consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat, and cause full thickness burn injuries to the skin in only 2-7 seconds.
5. Robert Knaff, a human factors engineer and defense witness, testified that hot coffee burns were “statistically insignificant” to McDonald’s when compared to the number of cups of coffee that McDonald’s served.
6. Dr. Charles Baxter, a burn specialist who examined President Kennedy and Governor Connally on November 22, 1963, testified that coffee served at 180 degrees was excessive and could not be consumed at that temperature, confirming McDonald’s own testimony that it was not fit for human consumption.
7. Dr. Kenneth Diller, a thermodynamicist, asserted that McDonald’s was serving an unreasonably dangerous product.
8. Ms. Liebeck suffered third degree burns on her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genitals. She was disabled for a period of two years and has permanent scars over 16 percent of her body.
The jury was at first annoyed that it had to waste its time listening to a case about spilled coffee. After seeing the photographs and listening to the evidence, it took just four hours to award Ms. Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. The jury did not leave Ms. Liebeck blameless, finding that she was 20% responsible, which reduced her award to $160,000. The jury then awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages because they found that McDonald’s conduct was willful, reckless, or malicious. They arrived at this figure by equating it with only two days of McDonald’s coffee sales ($1.35 million per day). This, the jury reasoned, would be a “statistically insignificant” figure to McDonald’s. New Mexico law limits punitive damages to three times the compensatory damages, so the judge reduced the punitive damage amount to $480,000 (three times $160,000). McDonald’s argued that the punitive damages should be thrown out entirely. However, Judge Scott stated that the punitive damages were justified in light of the “willful, wanton, reckless and what the court called callous” conduct of McDonald’s. (Associated Press, “Ruling Eases Heat on McDonald’s; Restaurant Will Still Appeal Coffee Verdict,” Wichita Eagle, September 15, 1994).
The media tried to paint Stella Liebeck as a greedy, money-hungry, frivolous lawsuit advocate. Most were just too lazy to find out the actual facts. Some simply wanted to use this as a platform to further the agenda of tort reform, and knew that the public would not take the time see if their version of the McDonald’s coffee case was the truth.
Hopefully, when someone brings up the McDonald’s coffee case as an example of frivolous lawsuits, you can say, “I wouldn’t have traded places with Ms. Liebeck for $640,000, would you?”
© Bruchez & Goss 2012