McDonald Coffee Cup Case:
In this case, an elderly woman was served coffee from a drive through McDonald’s Restaurant in February 1992. Stella Liebeck, who was approximately 75 years old was sitting in the passenger seat of her son’s car while he drove. She ordered coffee that was served in a Styrofoam cup. The son stopped so she could add cream and sugar to her cup.
She was not driving her own car.
Ms. Liebeck, placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup. As she removed the lid, the entire contents of the cup spilled into her lap. The cups are very brittle and collapse easily.
She suffered third-degree burns.
The sweat pants Liebeck was wearing absorbed the coffee and held it next to her skin. A vascular surgeon determined that she had suffered full thickness burns (third-degree burns) over 6% of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting and later debridement. She tried to settle her case for the medical expenses of $20,000, but McDonald’s refused.
700 other customers had been burned by McDonald’s hot coffee.
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.
McDonalds admits they keep their coffee too hot.
McDonald’s also admitted that they kept the temperature of their coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain optimum taste while other establishments sell coffee at between 135 to 140 degrees. McDonald’s food consultant admitted that a burn hazard exists with any food substance served at 140 degrees or above and at the temperature at which it was poured into Styrofoam cups, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat. The quality assurance manager admitted that burns would occur, but testified that McDonald’s had no intention of reducing the “holding temperature” of its coffee.
McDonalds admits hot coffee is a risk to customers.
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. Obviously, by selling the hot coffee via the drive through, McDonald’s knows that there is a risk of spilling and burning of skin. However, McDonald’s admitted customers were not aware of the high temperature of the coffee or the risk the high temperature of coffee had of burning the skin.
Jury award reduced by Judge.
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. The trial court subsequently reduced the punitive damages award to $480,000 – or approximately three times compensatory damages- even though the judge called McDonald’s conduct reckless, callous and willful.
McDonalds lowered the temperature on their coffee.
After trial investigation found that the temperature of coffee at the local Albuquerque McDonald’s had dropped to 158 degrees Fahrenheit. In spite of the facts, the media has emphasized this case in the media as an example of a run away jury verdict and outrageous award without publicizing the unique facts of the case and the truth of the final award.
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