McDonald's and its hot coffee

Few cases are as infamous (and as misreported) as Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, P.T.S. Inc., 1995 WL 360309 (N.M. Dist.)). It has gained international recognition and is regularly cited as a symbol for frivolous litigation.

This column is intended to ‘clear up’ the misconceptions that surround this case.

Here are the facts:

  • In 1992, Ms. Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman, ordered a cup of coffee from the drive-through window of a McDonald’s restaurant located in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

    • Ms. Liebeck was a passenger in a vehicle driven by her grandson.

    • After receiving the coffee, her grandson drove forward and parked, allowing Ms. Liebeck to add sugar and cream.

    • She placed the coffee between her knees and, in the process, she spilled the entire coffee on her lap.

    • She was wearing sweatpants, which absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin.

    • Ms. Liebeck scalded her thighs, buttocks, and genital and groin area.

    • She was taken to the hospital and suffered third degree burns to six percent of her skin.

    • She reportedly stayed in the hospital for over one week, underwent skin grafting, lost nearly 20% of her body weight, and suffered from two further years of medical treatment.

Despite her injuries, I can already hear skepticism: “Coffee is supposed to be served hot!” Yes, that’s true. But, we can agree that there are limits on how hot coffee should be served, right? Stores need to ensure that their product is safe; to do otherwise would place customers at risk. So, how hot was the coffee? Was it actually dangerous?

At home, coffee is often served at approximately 140°F (60°C). At trial, it was found that McDonald’s restaurants were serving coffee at 185°F (85°C), plus or minus 5°F, capable of causing serious, third-degree burns in under ten seconds.

McDonald’s cited the following two reasons for serving its hot coffee:

  • Coffee purchased through the drive-through window was typically sold to commuters who drove a distance with the coffee. As a result, the higher temperature would keep the coffee hot during the trip.

  • Keeping the coffee at the high temperature promoted optimal taste.

Some speculate that the higher temperature was intended for a profit motive, such as slowing consumption, thereby reducing the demand for free refills.

So, did Ms. Liebeck just want to get rich? Ms. Liebeck initially tried to settle the matter for $20,000.00; she had not retained a lawyer and requested very minimal compensation for her medical expenses and other losses. However, McDonald’s was only willing to offer $800.00, causing Ms. Liebeck to retain a lawyer. Before trial, there were repeated attempts to settle, requesting compensation for losses, amounts that were less than what was awarded at trial. However, all attempts were unsuccessful.

So, how much money was Ms. Liebeck awarded? A jury, who was composed of community members and who heard from medical experts, awarded $200,000.00 in compensatory damages, compensating Ms. Liebeck for her medical expenses and the significant impact/limitations that she had to endure. However, this amount was reduced to $160,000.00 in recognition that she was also responsible for her injuries.

In addition, the jury awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages. Punitive damages are NOT intended to compensate an injured person; instead, they are intended to punish the defendant and deter it (and other potential defendants) from committing similar wrongful acts in the future. McDonald’s put consumer safety at risk; the judge called its conduct willful, callous, and reckless.

Now, $2.7 million is a lot of money, right? But, the award needs to be high if you want a multi-billion dollar company to take notice. The jury’s intention behind the particular amount was reportedly to penalize McDonald’s for one or two days’ worth of coffee revenues, which, at the time, was approximately $1.35 million per day. However, in the end, the punitive damages award didn’t stick; the trial judge reduced the amount to $480,000.00, three times the compensatory award.

In total, at the end of the trial, Ms. Liebeck was awarded $640,000.00. However, McDonald’s appealed the decision and, before the appeal was decided, the parties settled for an undisclosed amount, reportedly much less than the trial award.

With coffee so hot, this couldn’t have been the first claim against McDonald’s, right? It was found that, between 1982 and 1992, McDonald’s received more than 700 claims of coffee burns, many similar to Ms. Liebeck’s, and McDonald’s reportedly paid out large dollars to settle these claims. At trial, the quality control manager for McDonald’s testified that the number of incidents was insufficient to evaluate its practice; he also stated that they had more pressing issues to be concerned about.

So, Ms. Liebeck won, right? Wrong. While Ms. Liebeck got some money and coffee is now served at lower temperatures, Ms. Liebeck’s injuries and efforts have been mocked and the defendant’s conduct has been trivialized.

My suggestion to those who read about cases in the media: do your own research; if it sounds too good, bizarre, or depressing to be true, it probably is.

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About the Author

Jeff Zilkowsky is a lawyer practicing at MacLean Law in the Lower Mainland and in Kelowna, and focuses his practice on family law and litigation.  

In his column, Jeff provides information about current legal events or points of interest or concern relating to the law. 

The information contained in Jeff’s column should not be used or relied upon as legal advice.

Comments are always appreciated and encouraged, so don’t hesitate to email Jeff at [email protected]

Visit Jeff’s website at www.jeffzilkowsky.com or visit the website of MacLean Law.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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