Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants

Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, also known as the McDonald's coffee case and the hot coffee lawsuit, was a highly publicized 1994 product liability lawsuit in the United States against the McDonald's restaurant chain.[1]

Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants
Full case nameStella Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, P.T.S., Inc. and McDonald's International, Inc.
DecidedAugust 18, 1994
Citation(s)1994 Extra LEXIS 23 (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. 1994), 1995 WL 360309 (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. 1994),
Court membership
Judge(s) sittingRobert H. Scott

The plaintiff, Stella Liebeck (1912–2004),[2] a 79-year-old woman, suffered third-degree burns in her pelvic region when she accidentally spilled coffee in her lap after purchasing it from a McDonald's restaurant. She was hospitalized for eight days while undergoing skin grafting, followed by two years of medical treatment. Liebeck sought to settle with McDonald's for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses. When McDonald's refused, Liebeck's attorney filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, accusing McDonald's of gross negligence.

Liebeck's attorneys argued that, at 180–190 °F (82–88 °C), McDonald's coffee was defective, and more likely to cause serious injury than coffee served at any other establishment. The jury found that McDonald's was 80 percent responsible for the incident. They awarded Liebeck a net $160,000[3] in compensatory damages to cover medical expenses, and $2.7 million (equivalent to $5,300,000 in 2022) in punitive damages, the equivalent of two days of McDonald's coffee sales. The trial judge reduced the punitive damages to three times the amount of the compensatory damages, totalling $640,000. The parties settled for a confidential amount before an appeal was decided.[4]

The Liebeck case became a flashpoint in the debate in the United States over tort reform. It was cited by some as an example of frivolous litigation;[5] ABC News called the case "the poster child of excessive lawsuits",[6] while the legal scholar Jonathan Turley argued that the claim was "a meaningful and worthy lawsuit".[7] Ex-attorney Susan Saladoff sees the portrayal in the media as purposeful misrepresentation due to political and corporate influence.[8] In June 2011, HBO premiered Hot Coffee, a documentary that discussed in depth how the Liebeck case has centered in debates on tort reform.[9]

Burn incident edit

Stella May Liebeck was born in Norwich, England, on December 14, 1912. She was 79 at the time of the burn incident. On February 27, 1992, Liebeck ordered a 49-cent cup of coffee from the drive-through window of a McDonald's restaurant at 5001 Gibson Boulevard Southeast in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Liebeck was in the passenger's seat of a 1989 Ford Probe, which did not have cup holders. Her grandson parked so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. She placed the coffee cup between her knees and pulled the far side of the lid toward her to remove it.[10] In the process, she spilled the entire cup of coffee on her lap.[11] Liebeck was wearing cotton sweatpants, which absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin, scalding her thighs, buttocks and groin.[12][13]

Liebeck went into shock and was taken to an emergency room at a hospital. She suffered third-degree burns on six percent of her skin and lesser burns over sixteen percent.[14][13] She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent skin grafting. During this period, Liebeck lost 20 pounds (9.1 kg), nearly 20 percent of her body weight, reducing her to 83 pounds (38 kg). After the hospital stay, Liebeck needed care for three weeks, which was provided by her daughter.[15] Liebeck suffered permanent disfigurement after the incident and was partially disabled for two years.[16][17]

Attempts to settle edit

Liebeck sought to settle with McDonald's for $20,000 to cover her actual and anticipated expenses. Her past medical expenses were $10,500; her anticipated future medical expenses were approximately $2,500; and her daughter's[15] loss of income was approximately $5,000 for a total of approximately $18,000.[18] McDonald's offered only $800.[19]

When McDonald's refused to raise its offer, Liebeck retained the Texas attorney Reed Morgan. Morgan filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, accusing McDonald's of gross negligence for selling coffee that was "unreasonably dangerous" and "defectively manufactured". Morgan offered to settle for $300,000, and a mediator suggested $225,000 just before trial; McDonald's refused both.[12]

Trial edit

The Liebeck case trial took place from August 8 to 17, 1994, before New Mexico District Court Judge Robert H. Scott.[20] During the case, Liebeck's attorneys discovered that McDonald's required franchisees to hold coffee at 180–190 °F (82–88 °C). Liebeck's attorneys argued that coffee should never be served hotter than 140 °F (60 °C), and that a number of other establishments served coffee at a substantially lower temperature than McDonald's. The attorneys presented evidence that coffee they had tested all over the city was served at a temperature at least 20 °F (11 °C) lower than McDonald's coffee. They also presented the jury with expert testimony that 190 °F (88 °C) coffee may produce third-degree burns (where skin grafting is necessary) in about three seconds and 180 °F (82 °C) coffee may produce such burns in about twelve to fifteen seconds.[12] Lowering the temperature to 160 °F (71 °C) would increase the time for the coffee to produce such a burn to 20 seconds. Liebeck's attorneys argued that these extra seconds could provide adequate time to remove the coffee from exposed skin, thereby preventing many burns.[21]

McDonald's claimed that the reason for serving such hot coffee in its drive-through windows was that those who purchased the coffee typically were commuters who wanted to drive a distance with the coffee; the high initial temperature would keep the coffee hot during the trip. However, it came to light that McDonald's had carried out research finding that customers intend to consume the coffee immediately while driving.[22] Another of McDonald's reasons for serving such hot coffee is advice from consultants that high temperatures are necessary in brewing to fully extract the flavor.[12]

Other documents obtained from McDonald's showed that from 1982 to 1992 the company had received more than 700 reports of people burned by McDonald's coffee to varying degrees of severity, and had settled claims arising from scalding injuries for more than $500,000.[12] McDonald's quality control manager, Christopher Appleton, testified that this number of injuries was insufficient to cause the company to evaluate its practices. He argued that all foods hotter than 130 °F (54 °C) constituted a burn hazard, and that restaurants had more pressing dangers to worry about. The plaintiffs argued that Appleton conceded that McDonald's coffee would burn the mouth and throat if consumed when served.[12][23]

Verdict edit

A twelve-person jury reached its verdict on August 18, 1994.[20] Applying the principles of comparative negligence, the jury found that McDonald's was 80 percent responsible for the incident and Liebeck was 20 percent at fault. Though there was a warning on the coffee cup, the jury decided that the warning was neither large enough nor sufficient. They awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages, which was reduced by 20 percent to $160,000. In addition, they awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages. According to The New York Times, the jurors arrived at this figure from Morgan's suggestion to penalize McDonald's for two days of coffee revenues, about $1.35 million per day.[14][12]

The judge reduced punitive damages to $480,000, three times the compensatory amount, for a total of $640,000. The decision was appealed by both McDonald's and Liebeck in December 1994, but the parties settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.[24] The Albuquerque Journal ran the first story of the verdict, followed by the Associated Press wire, which was picked up by newspapers around the world.[25]

Aftermath edit

The Liebeck case is cited by some as an example of frivolous litigation.[5] ABC News called the case "the poster child of excessive lawsuits".[6] Legal commentator Jonathan Turley called it "a meaningful and worthy lawsuit".[7] McDonald's asserts that the outcome of the case was a fluke, and attributed the loss to poor communications and strategy by an unfamiliar insurer representing a franchise. Liebeck's attorney, Reed Morgan, and the Association of Trial Lawyers of America defended the result in Liebeck by claiming that McDonald's reduced the temperature of its coffee after the suit, although McDonald's in fact had not done so.[26]

Detractors have argued that McDonald's refusal to offer more than an $800 settlement for the $10,500 in medical bills indicated that the suit was meritless and highlighted the fact that Liebeck spilled the coffee on herself rather than any wrongdoing on the company's part.[27][28][29] They state that the vast majority of judges who consider similar cases dismiss them before they get to a jury.[30]

Liebeck died on August 5, 2004, at age 91. According to her daughter, "the burns and court proceedings (had taken) their toll" and in the years following the settlement Liebeck had "no quality of life". She said the settlement had paid for a live-in nurse.[31]

Similar lawsuits edit

In McMahon v. Bunn Matic Corporation (1998), Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote a unanimous opinion affirming dismissal of a similar lawsuit against coffeemaker manufacturer Bunn-O-Matic, finding that 179 °F (82 °C) hot coffee was not "unreasonably dangerous".[30]

In Bogle v. McDonald's Restaurants Ltd. (2002), a similar lawsuit in the United Kingdom failed when the court rejected the claim that McDonald's could have avoided injury by serving coffee at a lower temperature.[32]

Since Liebeck, major vendors of coffee, including Chick-Fil-A,[33] Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, Wendy's, Burger King,[34] hospitals,[35] and McDonald's[36] have been defendants in similar lawsuits over coffee-related burns. There have also been lawsuits over injuries from other hot liquids.[37]

Two years prior to Liebeck, a similar lawsuit was settled during the trial for $15 million due to injuries from a sink in a rented apartment.[38]

Another lawsuit involving McDonald's was heard in Florida with the restaurant sued after a four-year-old girl suffered second-degree burns after a nugget from a happy meal fell in between her leg and the seatbelt.[39] McDonald's was found liable for negligence in the case and in July 2023 the girl, now eight years-old, was awarded $800,000 in damages. [40]

Coffee temperature edit

According to a 2007 report, McDonald's had not reduced the temperature of its coffee, serving it at 176–194 °F (80–90 °C),[26] relying on more sternly worded warnings on cups made of rigid foam to avoid future injury and liability (though it continues to face lawsuits over hot coffee).[26][41] However, in 2013 the New York Times reported that it had lowered its service temperature to 170–180 °F (77–82 °C).[14] The Specialty Coffee Association of America supports improved packaging methods rather than lowering the temperature at which coffee is served. The association has successfully aided the defense of subsequent coffee burn cases.[41] Similarly, as of 2004, Starbucks sells coffee at 175–185 °F (79–85 °C), and the executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America reported that the standard serving temperature is 160–185 °F (71–85 °C).[citation needed]

Hot Coffee documentary edit

On June 27, 2011, HBO premiered a documentary about tort reform problems, Hot Coffee. A large portion of the film covered Liebeck's lawsuit. This included news clips, comments from celebrities and politicians about the case, as well as myths and misconceptions, including how many people thought she was driving when the incident occurred and thought that she suffered only minor superficial burns.

The New York Times Retro Report edit

On October 21, 2013, The New York Times published a Retro Report video about the media reaction and an accompanying article about the changes in coffee drinking over 20 years.[14][42] The New York Times noted how the details of Liebeck's story lost length and context as it was reported worldwide,[14] and that McDonald's, rather than Liebeck, was portrayed as the victim.[43] Within a month, the Retro Report video had more than one million views and had triggered debate in the online comments.[44]

See also edit

References edit

  1. ^ Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, P.T.S., Inc., No. D-202 CV-93-02419, 1995 WL 360309 (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. August 18, 1994), docket entry from
  2. ^ Simmons, Andy (July 15, 2021). "Remember the Hot Coffee Lawsuit? It Changed the Way McDonald's Heats Coffee Forever". Reader's Digest.
  3. ^ "Liebeck v. McDonald's". June 13, 2016. Retrieved January 13, 2022.
  4. ^ "McDonald's settles lawsuit over burn from coffee". The Wall Street Journal. December 2, 1994. B6.
  5. ^ a b Greenlee 1997, p. 701.
  6. ^ a b Pearel, Lauren (May 2, 2007). "'I'm Being Sued for WHAT?'". ABC News. Archived from the original on March 27, 2015.
  7. ^ a b Levin, Myron (August 14, 2005). "Legal Urban Legends Hold Sway | Tall tales of outrageous jury awards have helped bolster business-led campaigns to overhaul the civil justice system". Archived from the original on March 3, 2012.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  8. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: Pacchia, Lee (June 28, 2011). "Hot Coffee Filmmaker Says Contributions Produce Biased Judges". YouTube. Bloomberg.
  9. ^ Tucker, Ken (June 27, 2011). "The must-watch TV show of the night: 'Hot Coffee' on HBO". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved June 28, 2011.
  10. ^ Scalded by Coffee, Then News Media (MP4). The New York Times. October 21, 2013. Retrieved October 26, 2013.
  11. ^ Michael McCann, William Haltom, and Anne Bloom, "Law & Society Symposium: Java Jive: Genealogy of a Juridical Icon", 56 U. Miami L. Rev. 113 (October 2001), which describes the accident in detail
  12. ^ a b c d e f g Gerlin, Andrea (September 1, 1994). "A Matter of Degree: How a Jury Decided that a Coffee Spill is Worth $2.9 Million" (PDF). The Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original (PDF) on September 23, 2015. Retrieved June 18, 2015.
  13. ^ a b Nader & Smith 1996, p. 268.
  14. ^ a b c d e Scalded by Coffee, Then News Media (MP4). The New York Times. October 21, 2013. Retrieved October 26, 2013.
  15. ^ a b FindLaw's team of legal writers. "The McDonald's Coffee Cup Case: Separating McFacts From McFiction". Findlaw.
  16. ^ Horsey, Kirsty; Rackley, Erika (June 18, 2013). Tort Law. Oxford University Press. pp. 356–. ISBN 978-0-19-966189-3.
  17. ^ Haltom & McCann 2009, pp. 186ff.
  18. ^ Amended Complaint about Damages, Stella LIEBECK, Plaintiff, v. MCDONALD'S RESTAURANTS, P.T.S, Inc. and McDonald's Corporation, Defendants. 1993 WL 13651163, District Court of New Mexico, (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. October 5, 1993)
  19. ^ "The McDonald's Hot Coffee Case". Retrieved April 15, 2022.
  20. ^ a b Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, docket entry from[full citation needed]
  21. ^ "Liebeck v. McDonald's". June 13, 2016. Retrieved May 15, 2022.
  22. ^ "McDsScaldingCoffee".
  23. ^ Nader & Smith 1996, pp. 270–272.
  24. ^ Daniel J. Shapiro, Punitive Damages in Louisiana: A Year of Controversy, 43 La. B.J. 252, 254 n.1 (1995).[verification needed]
  25. ^ Document 00689724 - McDonalds scalding: woman burned by hot coffee gets $2.9 million. Albuquerque: Associated Press. August 18, 1994.
  26. ^ a b c "Huntingdon & St Ives latest news - Burger chain sued after boy's ordeal". June 22, 2007. Archived from the original on May 15, 2009. Retrieved May 14, 2008.
  27. ^ Bainbridge, Stephen (August 1, 2004). "Trial lawyer propaganda at kos" (revised relocated blog entry). Retrieved May 14, 2008.)
  28. ^ Sebok, Anthony J. (November 2006). "Dispatches from the Tort Wars". Texas Law Review. 85: 1509–1510.
  29. ^ Frank, Ted (October 20, 2005). "Urban legends and Stella Liebeck and the McDonald's coffee case". Overlawyered.
  30. ^ a b "Angelina and Jack McMahon, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Bunn-O-Matic Corporation, James River Paper Company, and Wincup Holdings, L.P., Defendants-Appellees". Findlaw. July 2, 1998.
  31. ^ Smith, Toby (January 6, 2009). "Student Measured Heat in Coffee Case". Albuquerque Journal. Retrieved May 16, 2015.
  32. ^ England and Wales High Court (March 25, 2002). "Bogle & Ors v McDonald's Restaurants Ltd". 33.
  33. ^ Hurtado, Linda (February 12, 2011). "Local woman sues National Franchise over coffee". ABC Action News. The E.W. Scripps Co. Archived from the original on November 4, 2011. Retrieved March 22, 2013.
  34. ^ "Burned woman sues Burger King". 3 News NZ. January 10, 2012. Archived from the original on November 13, 2013. Retrieved January 9, 2013.
  35. ^ O'Brien, John (June 6, 2006). "Woman's estate sues over hot coffee". The West Virginia Record. Madison County Record, Inc. Retrieved March 22, 2013.
  36. ^ Behme, Todd J. (March 23, 2012). "McDonald's hit with 2 hot-coffee lawsuits". Crain's Chicago Business. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
  37. ^ Burke, Minyvonne (April 22, 2020). "Family of 3-year-old severely burned at Wawa by hot water gets $3 million settlement". NBC News.
  38. ^ York, Michael (May 27, 1992). "Child Scalded In Sink To Get $15 Million". The Washington Post.
  39. ^ "McDonald's found liable for hot Chicken McNugget that burned girl". AP News. May 12, 2023. Retrieved May 14, 2023.
  40. ^ "Jury awards Florida girl burned by McDonald's Chicken McNugget $800,000 in damages". AP News. Retrieved July 21, 2023.
  41. ^ a b Greenlee 1997, p. 724.
  42. ^ Stout, Hilary (October 21, 2013). "Not Just a Hot Cup Anymore". Retro Report. The New York Times. Retrieved October 26, 2013.
  43. ^ Scalded by Coffee, Then News Media (MP4). The New York Times. October 21, 2013. Event occurs at 6:45–11:35.
  44. ^ Bertram, Bonnie (October 25, 2013). "Storm Still Brews Over Scalding Coffee". Retro Report. The New York Times. Retrieved October 26, 2013.

Bibliography edit

  • Greenlee, Mark B. (1997). "Kramer v. Java World: Images, Issues, and Idols in the Debate over Tort Reform". Capital University Law Review. 26 (4): 701–738.
  • Haltom, William; McCann, Michael (2009) [2004]. Distorting the Law: Politics, Media, and the Litigation Crisis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-31469-3.
  • Nader, Ralph; Smith, Wesley J. (1996). No Contest: Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-0-679-42972-2.

Further reading edit

External links edit