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 McDonald's.
|Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants|
|Full case name||Stella Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, P.T.S., Inc. and McDonald's International, Inc.|
|Decided||August 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),|
|Judge(s) sitting||Robert H. Scott|
Plaintiff Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman, suffered third-degree burns in her pelvic region when she accidentally spilled hot coffee in her lap after purchasing it from a McDonald's restaurant. Liebeck was hospitalized for eight days while undergoing skin grafting, followed by two years of medical treatment.
The Liebeck case became a flashpoint in the debate in the United States over tort reform. Liebeck's attorneys argued that, at 180–190 °F (82–88 °C), McDonald's coffee was defective, claiming it was too hot and more likely to cause serious injury than coffee served at any other establishment. McDonald's had refused several prior opportunities to settle for less than what the jury ultimately awarded. The jury damages included $160,000 in compensatory damages to cover medical expenses, and $2.7 million in punitive damages, the equivalent of two days worth 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.
The Liebeck case was said by some to be an example of frivolous litigation; ABC News called the case "the poster child of excessive lawsuits", while the legal scholar Jonathan Turley argued that the claim was "a meaningful and worthy lawsuit". Ex-attorney Susan Saladoff sees the manner in which the case was portrayed in the media as purposeful misrepresentation due to political and corporate influence. In June 2011, HBO premiered Hot Coffee, a documentary that discussed in depth how the Liebeck case has centered in debates on tort reform.
Stella May Liebeck (née Shreeve) was born in Norwich, England on December 14, 1912 and was 79 at the time of her lawsuit. She died on August 5, 2004 at the age of 91.
On February 27, 1992, Liebeck ordered a 49-cent cup of coffee from the drive-through window of an Albuquerque McDonald's restaurant located at 5001 Gibson Boulevard Southeast. Liebeck was in the passenger's seat of a 1989 Ford Probe which did not have cup holders. Her grandson parked the car so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Liebeck placed the coffee cup between her knees and pulled the far side of the lid toward her to remove it. In the process, she spilled the entire cup of coffee on her lap. Liebeck was wearing cotton sweatpants; they absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin, scalding her thighs, buttocks, and groin.
Liebeck was taken to the hospital, where it was determined that she had suffered third-degree burns on six percent of her skin and lesser burns over sixteen percent. 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. Liebeck suffered permanent disfigurement after the incident and was partially disabled for two years.
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 loss of income was approximately $5,000 for a total of approximately $18,000. Instead, the company offered only $800.
When McDonald's refused to raise its offer, Liebeck retained 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". McDonald's refused Morgan's offer to settle for $90,000. Morgan offered to settle for $300,000, and a mediator suggested $225,000 just before trial, but McDonald's refused these final pre-trial attempts to settle.
Trial and verdictEdit
The Liebeck case trial took place from August 8 to 17, 1994, before New Mexico District Court Judge Robert H. Scott. During the case, Liebeck's attorneys discovered that McDonald's required franchisees to hold coffee at 180–190 °F (82–88 °C). Liebeck's attorney 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. They presented evidence that coffee they had tested all over the city was all served at a temperature at least 20°F (11°C) lower than what McDonald's served. Liebeck's lawyers 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 3 seconds and 180 °F (82 °C) coffee may produce such burns in about 12 to 15 seconds. 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.
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 done research which indicated that customers intend to consume the coffee immediately while driving.
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. 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.
A twelve-person jury reached its verdict on the Liebeck case on August 18, 1994. 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 then 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' worth of coffee revenues, which were about $1.35 million per day.
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. The Albuquerque Journal ran the first story of the verdict, followed by the Associated Press wire, which was in turn picked up by newspapers around the world. 
The Liebeck case is considered by some to be an example of frivolous litigation. ABC News called the case "the poster child of excessive lawsuits". Jonathan Turley called the case "a meaningful and worthy lawsuit". 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 it is not clear whether McDonald's in fact had done so.
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. They state that the vast majority of judges who consider similar cases dismiss them before they get to a jury.
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", and that the settlement had paid for a live-in nurse.
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".
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.
Since Liebeck, major vendors of coffee, including Chick-Fil-A, Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, Wendy's, Burger King, hospitals, and McDonald's have been defendants in similar lawsuits over coffee-related burns. There have also been lawsuits over injuries from other hot liquids.
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.
Since Liebeck, McDonald's has not reduced the service temperature of its coffee. McDonald's current policy is to serve coffee at 176–194 °F (80–90 °C), relying on more sternly worded warnings on cups made of rigid foam to avoid future liability, though it continues to face lawsuits over hot coffee. 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. 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).
Hot Coffee documentaryEdit
On June 27, 2011, HBO premiered a documentary about tort reform problems titled 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 film also discussed in great depth how Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants is often used and misused to describe a frivolous lawsuit and referenced in conjunction with tort reform efforts. It contends that corporations have spent millions promoting misconceptions of tort cases in order to promote tort reform. In reality, the majority of damages in the case were punitive due to McDonald's' reckless disregard for the number of burn victims prior to Liebeck.
The New York Times Retro ReportEdit
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. The New York Times noted how the details of Liebeck's story lost length and context as it was reported worldwide. The report underscored that the narrative of the story was distorted in the media, in which the "condensed telling of the story created its own version of the truth" where McDonald's rather than Liebeck was portrayed as the victim.
An October 25 follow-up article noted that the video had more than one million views and had sparked vigorous debate in the online comments.
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- The Stella Liebeck McDonald's Hot Coffee Case FAQ at Abnormal Use
- The Full Story Behind the Case and How Corporations Used it to Promote Tort Reform? – video report by Democracy Now!
- Thought the McDonald's Hot Coffee Spilling Lawsuit was Frivolous? by David Haynes of The Cochran Firm
- Case Study: The True Story Behind the McDonald's Coffee Lawsuit