Grading Our Justice System, Part 2: McDonald’s: The Cup of Coffee that Just Keeps Spilling.

Mar 23, 2017

Like a zombie stubbornly shambling toward you, the McDonald’s coffee story refuses to go down, despite the fact that the real case is far different from what people have heard.  A respected journalism professor has called it one of the most misunderstood stories of our time.

79-year-old Stella Liebeck bought a cup of takeout coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque and spilled it on her lap. She sued McDonald’s and a jury awarded her nearly $3 million in punitive damages for the burns she suffered.

Typical reaction: Isn’t coffee supposed to be hot? And McDonald’s didn’t pour the coffee on her, she spilled it on herself! Besides, she was driving the car and wasn’t paying attention.

Now for the facts:

Mrs. Liebeck was not driving when her coffee spilled, nor was the car she was in moving. She was the passenger in her nephew’s car, that was stopped in the parking lot of the McDonald’s where she bought the coffee. She had the cup between her knees while removing the lid to add cream and sugar when the cup tipped over and spilled the entire contents on her lap.

The coffee was not just “hot,” but dangerously hot. McDonald’s corporate policy was to serve it at a temperature that could cause serious burns in seconds. Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries were far from frivolous. She was wearing sweatpants that absorbed the coffee and kept it against her skin. She suffered third-degree burns (the most serious kind) and required skin grafts on her inner thighs and elsewhere.

Liebeck’s case was far from an isolated event. McDonald’s had received more than 700 previous reports of injury from its coffee, including reports of third-degree burns, and had paid settlements in some cases.

Mrs. Liebeck offered to settle the case for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses and lost income. But McDonald’s never offered more than $800, so the case went to trial. The jury found Mrs. Liebeck to be partially at fault for her injuries, reducing the compensation for her injuries accordingly. But the jury’s punitive damages award made headlines — upset by McDonald’s unwillingness to correct a policy despite hundreds of people suffering injuries, they awarded Liebeck the equivalent of two days’ worth of revenue from coffee sales for the restaurant chain. That wasn’t, however, the end of it. The original punitive damage award was ultimately reduced by more than 80 percent by the judge. And, to avoid what likely would have been years of appeals, Mrs. Liebeck and McDonald’s later reached a confidential settlement.

Here is some of the evidence the jury heard during the trial: 

McDonald’s Operations Manual required the franchisee to hold its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit;

Every one of McDonald’s competitors tested served their coffee between 30-40 degrees cooler.

Coffee as hot as McDonald’s, if spilled, causes third-degree burns (the worst kind of burn) in three to seven seconds;

Third-degree burns do not heal without skin grafting, debridement and whirlpool treatments that cost tens of thousands of dollars and result in permanent disfigurement, extreme pain and disability of the victim for many months, and in some cases, years;

The chairman of the department of mechanical engineering and bio-mechanical engineering at the University of Texas testified that this risk of harm is unacceptable, as did a widely recognized expert on burns, the editor in chief of the leading scholarly publication in the specialty, the Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation;

McDonald’s admitted that it has known about the risk of serious burns from its scalding hot coffee for more than 10 years — the risk was brought to its attention through numerous other claims and suits, to no avail;

In the 10 years prior to the case, McDonald’s coffee burned more than 700 people, many receiving severe burns to the genital area, perineum, inner thighs, and buttocks; 

Not only men and women, but also children and infants, have been burned by McDonald’s scalding hot coffee, in some instances due to inadvertent spillage by McDonald’s employees;

McDonald’s admitted at trial that its coffee is “not fit for consumption” at the time it’s sold because it causes severe scalds if spilled or drunk;

McDonald’s admitted at trial that consumers are unaware of the extent of the risk of serious burns from spilled coffee served at McDonald’s then required temperature;

McDonald’s admitted that it did not warn customers of the nature and extent of this risk and could offer no explanation as to why it did not;

Liebeck’s treating physician testified that her injury was one of the worst scald burns he had ever seen.

Moreover, the Shriner’s Burn Institute in Cincinnati had published warnings to the franchise food industry that its members were unnecessarily causing serious scald burns by serving beverages above 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

In refusing to grant a new trial in the case, Judge Robert Scott called McDonald’s behavior “callous.”

In its ruling in the punitive damages phase, the Court found that McDonald’s had engaged in “willful, wanton, and reckless” behavior.

An expert witness for the company testified that the number of burns was insignificant compared to the billions of cups of coffee the company served each year.

At least one juror later told the Wall Street Journal she thought the company wasn’t taking the injuries seriously. To the corporate restaurant giant those 700 injury cases caused by hot coffee seemed relatively rare compared to the millions of cups of coffee served. But, the juror noted, “there was a person behind every number and I don’t think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that.”

In a story about the case published shortly after the verdict was delivered, one of the jurors said over the course of the trial he came to realize the case was about “callous disregard for the safety of the people.” Another juror said “the facts were so overwhelmingly against the company.”

That’s because those jurors were able to hear all the facts — including those presented by McDonald’s — and see the extent of Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries. Ask anyone who criticizes the case as a “frivolous lawsuit” that resulted in “jackpot justice” if they have done the same.

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