Tort Reform and McDonald's Coffee | The Hoglawyer

Monday, November 19, 2007

Tort Reform and McDonald's Coffee

Posted By on Mon, Nov 19, 2007 at 4:50 PM

I'm sure everyone remembers the story years ago that a woman spilled a cup of McDonald's coffee on herself which burned her. She sued and at first won a few million dollars. The tort reform lobby used this as their poster case for reducing "frivolous" lawsuits.

Who isn't against frivolous lawsuits? I don't think you could find one attorney who is for frivolous lawsuits. In facts, long before tort reform became a national issue, filing a frivolous lawsuit was unethical and could subject a lawyer to sanctions. What is frivolous anyway? Of course, like many legal concepts it is in the eye of the beholder, who happens to be the judge deciding the case. Frivolous means 
1. characterized by lack of seriousness or sense: frivolous conduct. 2. self-indulgently carefree; unconcerned about or lacking any serious purpose. 3. (of a person) given to trifling or undue levity: a frivolous, empty-headed person. 4. of little or no weight, worth, or importance; not worthy of serious notice: a frivolous suggestion.

So was the lawsuit by the woman who burned herself ( it's not like a McDonalds employee threw it on her) frivolous ?    I never thought it was which tends to shock non-lawyers. But the fact are complicated.

friv·o·lous      /ˈfrɪvələs/ Pronunciation Key - Show Spelled Pronunciation[friv-uh-luhs] Pronunciation Key - Show IPA Pronunciation –adjective 1. characterized by lack of seriousness or sense: frivolous conduct. 2. self-indulgently carefree; unconcerned about or lacking any serious purpose. 3. (of a person) given to trifling or undue levity: a frivolous, empty-headed person. 4. of little or no weight, worth, or importance; not worthy of serious notice: a frivolous suggestion.
Looking at a Wall Street Journal article, the facts are fascinating. Some things that stand out - at 180 degrees coffee can cause severe burns in 2-3 seconds.    The plaintiff had to have skin grafts and was hospitalized eight days.  The plaintiff offered to settle the entire case for $20,000 at first.  McDonalds said no.   Who was being frivolous by taking this to trial then?    The problem with frivolous suits is who gets to decide what is frivolous.  We trust a jury of 12 to execute people -- then why can't we trust a jury to decide if a corporation has done an individual wrong and should be punished with punitive damages?   Of course there are counter-arguments, but this one case is a great example in my opinion of how the legal system gets it right even though the outcome seems bazaar.


Nearly ten years later, critics of civil justice and juries continue to mock Stella Liebeck and the McDonald's coffee case, calling it 'frivolous' and 'laughable'. However, it was McDonald's own testimony and actions that led a jury to rule against it. And Stella's injuries–which included 3rd degree burns across her groin, inner thighs, and buttocks–were no laughing matter.

Facts About the Case * Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was in the passenger seat of her grandson's car when she was severely burned by McDonald's coffee in February 1992. Liebeck ordered coffee that was served in a Styrofoam cup at the drive-through window of a local McDonald's. * Critics of civil justice often charge that Liebeck was driving the car or that the vehicle was in motion when she spilled the coffee; neither is true. After receiving the order, the grandson pulled his car forward and stopped momentarily so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup. As Liebeck 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. 

Stella Liebeck's Injury and Hospitalization

* A vascular surgeon determined that Liebeck suffered full thickness burns (or third-degree burns) over 6 percent of her body. * Liebeck suffered burns on her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. * She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting and debridement treatments (the surgical removal of tissue).

Stella Liebeck's Initial Claim

* Liebeck sought to settle her claim for $20,000, but McDonald's refused. 

McDonald's Attitude

*  During discovery, McDonald's produced documents showing more than 700 claims by people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some claims involved third-degree burns substantially similar to Liebeck's. This history documented McDonald's knowledge about the extent and nature of this hazard.
* McDonald's also said during discovery that, based on a consultant's advice, it held its coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain optimum taste.   o  Other establishments sell coffee at substantially lower temperatures than at McDonald's.   o  Coffee served at home is generally 135 to 140 degrees

Damaging Testimony

* McDonald's own quality assurance manager testified that a burn hazard exists with any food substance served at 140 degrees or above and that McDonald's coffee was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat. * The quality assurance manager further testified that the company actively enforces a requirement that coffee be held in the pot at 185 degrees, plus or minus five degrees. He also testified that while burns would occur, McDonald's had no intention of reducing the "holding temperature" of its coffee. * Plaintiff's expert, a scholar in thermodynamics as 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 Liebeck's spill had involved coffee at 155 degrees, the liquid would have cooled and given her time to avoid a serious burn. * McDonald's asserted 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. * McDonald's also argued that consumers know coffee is hot and that its customers want it that way. The company admitted its customers were unaware that they could suffer third-degree burns from the coffee and 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 hazard.


According to The Wall Street Journal

A Jury of One's Peers

* The Wall Street Journal wrote (September 1, 1994), "The testimony of Mr. [Christopher] Appleton, the McDonald's executive, didn't help the company, jurors said later. He testified that McDonald's knew its coffee sometimes caused serious burns, but hadn't consulted burn experts about it. He also testified that McDonald's had decided not to warn customers about the possibility of severe burns, even though most people wouldn't think it possible. Finally, he testified that McDonald's didn't intend to change any of its coffee policies or procedures, saying, 'There are more serious dangers in restaurants.' " * The Journal quoted one juror, Jack Elliott, remarking after the trial that the case had been about such "callous disregard for the safety of the people." * The Journal story continued, "Next for the defense came P. Robert Knaff, a human-factors engineer who earned $15,000 in fees from the case and who, several jurors said later, didn't help McDonald's either. Dr. Knaff told the jury that hot-coffee burns were statistically insignificant when compared to the billion cups of coffee McDonald's sells annually. To jurors, Dr. Knaff seemed to be saying that the graphic photos they had seen of Mrs. Liebeck's burns didn't matter because they were rare. 'There was a person behind every number and I don't think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that,' says juror Betty Farnham." * At the beginning of the trial, jury foreman Jerry Goens told the Journal, he "wasn't convinced as to why I needed to be there to settle a coffee spill." *
By the end of the trial, Betty Farnham told the Journal, "The facts were so overwhelmingly against the company. They were not taking care of their customers."

The Verdict

* The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. This amount was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Liebeck 20 percent at fault in the spill. The jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which equals about two days of McDonald's coffee sales. * Post-verdict investigation found that the temperature of coffee at the local Albuquerque McDonald's had dropped to 158 degrees Fahrenheit. * The trial court subsequently reduced the punitive award to $480,000—or three times compensatory damages—even though the judge called McDonald's conduct reckless, callous and willful. Subsequent to remittitur, the parties entered a post-verdict settlement.

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