The McDonalds' Coffee Case

01/07/2017 09:04 am ET Updated Jan 07, 2018

In 1992, Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was in the passenger seat of her grandson's car when she was severely burned by a cup of coffee purchased at a local McDonalds' drivethrough window. This case received a great deal of publicity and became a prime example for frivolous lawsuits which garnered large monetary damages. A closer look at the facts of the case and the law reveal that the judge and jury probably made a good decision.

Liebeck, 79 years old at the time of the incident, was injured when her grandson stopped so that she could add cream and sugar to the coffee. She placed the cup of coffee between her legs and attempted to remove the lid. Unfortunately, she spilled the entire liquid contents onto her lap. The sweatpants that Liebeck was wearing absorbed the hot liquid and held it next to the skin of her thighs. She suffered full thickness burns to her thighs, buttocks, groin and genital area amounting to what the surgeons described as six percent of her total body surface area.

Ms. Liebeck was hospitalized for eight days for treatment of the burns. She had to have debridement and local wound care. The areas which had full thickness injury had to have skin grafts for coverage. Ms. Liebeck brought a suit against McDonalds and was apparently willing to settle for $20,000 but McDonalds made a strategic decision to fight the claim. This turned out to be a bad business decision for McDonalds but a good decision for the rest of the public.

During the discovery phase of the litigation, several interesting facts came out that, through the years, were not discussed by the main stream media. For one, McDonalds had faced over 700 claims by people who had suffered burns from the coffee from 1982-1992. Some of these claims involved full-thickness burns similar to those suffered by Ms. Liebeck. These previous claims showed that McDonalds knew, or should have known, about the danger associated with the high temperatures of the coffee.

McDonalds admitted that they kept their coffee temperature between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit. They used this temperature based on a consultant's advice that this was the range needed for the best taste. McDonalds originally claimed that customers intended to consume the coffee after they got to work or home at which time the coffee would have cooled down. However, McDonalds' own internal research showed that most of the customers drank the coffee while still in their car. McDonalds admitted that they had not studied the dangers associated with these high temperatures.

It was found that other fast food restaurants sold their coffee at significantly lower temperatures. Coffee served by people in their homes was in the 135-140 degree range.

Plaintiff's had an expert on thermodynamics related to skin burns. He testified that liquids at 180 degrees would cause a full-thickness burn to human skin in two to seven seconds. As the temperature of the liquid fell to 155 degrees the likelihood of a burn injury would fall exponentially. If the coffee served to Ms. Liebeck was 155 degrees it would have cooled enough to avoid a significant injury when she spilled it.

McDonalds argued that their customers knew the coffee was hot and the customers wanted it that way. There was a statement on the side of the cup but McDonalds agreed that it was only a "reminder" that the coffee was hot. The writing on the cup was not located in a position to serve as an actual warning and McDonalds admitted to this fact. McDonalds also admitted that the customers were not aware that the coffee being served could cause full-thickness burn injuries if contacting the skin.

The most damaging testimony against McDonalds actually came from its own quality assurance manager who testified that McDonalds required their restaurants to keep the coffee pot temperature at 185 degrees. He admitted that a burn risk existed for any food (or drink) served at over 140 degrees and that the coffee poured into the cups was not yet fit for consumption since it was well above that temperature. Burns to the mouth and throat would occur if the consumer would drink the coffee at that temperature. He also stated that McDonalds had no plans to reduce the temperature of its coffee.

After a jury trial, Liebeck was awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. The compensatory damages were reduced to $160,000 because the jury found that Liebeck was at fault for 20 percent of the spill. Even though the punitive damages award seemed high, it only amounted to about two days' worth of national coffee sales for McDonalds at that time.

The high punitive damages award got quite a lot of press. The states have all been concerned about high punitive damages awards as these awards seem to undermine a core value of our justice system, i.e., a sense of fairness. The states have tried different methods to regulate punitive damages awards including (1) barring punitive damages altogether, (2) allowing punitive damages only when they are allowed by statute, (3) imposing a statutory limit in the form of an absolute monetary cap, and (4) imposing a maximum ratio of punitive to compensatory damages. Even the United States Supreme Court has opted to limit punitive damages to single digit ratios to compensatory damages for several tort and contract cases.

The trial court, probably believing that the punitive damages award was too high, reduced that part of the award to $480,000 which was about three times the compensatory damages. This was more in line with the single digit ratio of punitive to compensatory damages which was discussed in previous Supreme Court jurisprudence. However, even though the judge reduced the punitive damages award, he did conclude that McDonalds' conduct was "reckless, callous, and willful."

Ms. Liebeck, rather than having the award overturned on appeal, entered into a settlement with McDonalds where she probably agreed to some lesser amount. This settlement which the parties agreed would remain secret, has never been revealed to the public despite the fact that the case received extensive public reporting. Such secret settlements are common and are allowed under the laws of contracts but it does prevent the public from ever learning the final results of a public trial. This is one of the frustrations of our legal system.

One of the main benefits emanating from the trial was revealed when a post-verdict investigation showed that that temperature of the coffee at the local Albuquerque McDonalds had been reduced to 158 degrees Fahrenheit, a level still dangerous but less likely to cause injury if spilled. Perhaps the system worked after all. A products liability case with a high monetary award resulted in a much safer product. The case was not so "frivolous" after all.

Dr. Weiman's website is www.medicalmalpracticeandthelaw.com