The Real Details of the Hot Coffee Lawsuit

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Any time you find yourself in an argument about frivolous lawsuits and tort reform, someone’s probably going to bring up “that woman who sued McDonald’s over the hot coffee and won four ba-jillion dollars in damages.” The popular version of the story has a little something for everyone: a stalwart national company, the apparently absurd premise that someone would object to coffee being served hot, and a cash settlement that was large enough to be memorable.

Although the particulars of the case have been repeated so often that it has begun to sound like an urban legend, there really was a “hot coffee lawsuit.” How well do people remember the facts of the case that’s often used as the epitome of out-of-control litigiousness? Let’s take a look at 1994’s Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants.

The world’s most infamous cup of coffee spilled on February 27, 1992 in Albuquerque, NM. Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old grandmother, was a passenger in her grandson’s car when they drove through at a McDonald’s, and after she received her styrofoam cup of joe her grandson pulled the car forward and parked so Liebeck could mix in her cream and sugar.

Liebeck braced the cup between her knees, but when she tried to pull off the cup’s lid, the entire cup of coffee spilled into her lap. Although subsequent developments in the courtroom turned Liebeck and her case into objects of derision, it’s worth noting that she actually suffered legitimate injuries from the accident. Liebeck’s sweatpants absorbed the hot coffee and held it next to her skin, which helped lead to third degree burns on six percent of her body. Liebeck ended up spending eight days in the hospital and undergoing skin grafts to counter the effects of the burns.

Of course, most people who use the Liebeck decision to make a point about tort reform don’t do so to minimize the severity of Liebeck’s injuries. They’re blasting the apparent greed with which liability lawyers operate. It’s also worth noting, though, Liebeck apparently didn’t hear cash registers ringing immediately after she suffered the injuries. Liebeck had rung up around $11,000 in medical bills as a result of the accident, and she initially approached McDonald’s asking for $20,000 to cover her medical bills, future medical expenses, and lost income.

In a move McDonald’s surely lived to regret, the restaurant countered with a lowball offer of $800. The restaurant apparently used the same sort of common-sense logic that most people applied to the case when they heard about it; that is, if you spill coffee into your own lap the only person liable for the accident is you.

The please-go-away offer didn’t sit too well with Liebeck and her legal counsel, and although they made several other attempts to settle the case out of court at prices as high as $300,000, McDonald’s refused to blink. With no settlement in sight, attorney Reed Morgan filed a suit against McDonald’s to ask for $100,000 in compensatory damages and more in punitive damages since McDonald’s had been grossly negligent in selling Liebeck a “defectively manufactured” product. (Yes, the logic was that overheating coffee rendered the beverage defective and dangerous.)

McDonald’s asked for a summary dismissal of Liebeck case on the grounds that she was the actual cause of her injuries since she was the one who physically spilled the coffee. The trial judge rejected the motion, though, and told Liebeck and McDonald’s to attend a mediation session in a last-ditch attempt to hammer out a settlement. The mediator advised McDonald’s to settle for $225,000. McDonald’s – you may see a pattern emerging here – again scoffed at opening its coffers. Instead, the case went before a jury.

It’s safe to say that the impaneled citizens probably weren’t expecting to hear hours of testimony about the temperature of coffee when they got their jury duty notices in the mail. That’s what they heard, though. Over the course of the trial, Liebeck’s team established that McDonald’s had a policy of serving its coffee at temperatures ranging from 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit to enhance flavor and ensure that to-go cups were still warm when they reached their destinations. (The coffee that you brew at home probably comes out at around 140 degrees, so there’s a significant difference.) Moreover, experts testified that skin can burn quickly when contacted by liquids at these temperatures.

More damning, though, was McDonald’s own testimony. The company admitted that in the decade before Liebeck’s incident, upwards of 700 customers had filed complaints about its coffee causing burns. McDonald’s argued that the 700 complaints were only one for every 24 million cups of coffee sold, though, so the danger was statistically insignificant. (Note to any aspiring trial lawyers out there: it’s probably not a good idea to bring up statistical significance when there’s a severely burned grandmother sitting in front of a jury.)

The jurors only needed four hours of deliberation to arrive at their infamous verdict. The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages but dropped this sum to $160,000 since it felt Liebeck was 20-percent at fault for her accident. The real whopper, though, were the punitive damages against McDonald’s, which the jury pegged at $2.7 million. (That number reflected roughly two days’ worth of McDonald’s coffee revenues.)

The trial judge would later reduce the punitive damages to $480,000, but the media had already sunk its teeth into the $2.9 million total the jury returned. In truth, though, we don’t know how much cash actually changed hands between Liebeck and McDonald’s. Both parties appealed the trial judge’s reduced figure for damages, and the two parties eventually reached an undisclosed out-of-court settlement before the appeals were heard.

Regardless of where you stand on the merits of Liebeck’s legal case, it’s hard to deny the sweep of the infamous “coffee case.” McDonald’s now serves its coffee in a lower temperature range, and the warnings about the dangers of hot liquids seem to grow continuously. Liebeck died in 2004 at the age of 91, three years before McDonald’s added iced coffee to its menu.

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January 13, 2011 - 5:31pm
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