Lawsuits & Hot Coffee

We’ve all heard about “the hot coffee case.”  After that trial was over, the insurance industry and giant corporations went to the the news media and gave their spin on the case. They couldn’t talk enough about it. Even today, decades later, people who dislike lawsuits and courts loves to talk about that “hot coffee case.”

But what were the facts?

We all know that coffee is hot, but can it be too hot? The hottest temperature recommended by beverage experts is 120-140 degrees. (The top of that range, 140 degrees, is hotter than most people find comfortable.) How hot is dangerously hot? McDonald’s franchise operations manual dictates a brewing temperature of between 180 to 190 degrees, which is clearly not a temperature a person can consume the beverage at, unless they want to scorch their insides. But it does save the company a ton of money to keep their coffee at that temperature, keeping it tasting fresh longer so that it doesn’t have to be thrown out and rebrewed.

But in 1994, when 79 year old Stella Liebeck spilled her coffee on her lap, her attorneys pointed the above fact out. McDonald’s kept their coffee far hotter than it needed to be, hotter than was safe. They did this as a cost saving measure, plain and simple. The lawsuit that followed, Liebeck v. McDonald’s, made headlines around the nation. So the debate about coffee brewing temps isn’t merely a matter of taste but, as the case showed, it is a about corporations putting profit over consumer safety.

Scientific Background

Let’s take a very quick look into the dangers of hot water before we dive into the details of that product liability lawsuit.

Water at a temperature of over 120 degrees is considered “scalding” and is therefore a hazard. Water boils at 212 degrees, the temperature at which we cook. Water that is any hotter than boiling literally turns to gas. So the hazardous range of water temperatures is between 120 and 212. Human skin will burn if exposed to water at only 150 degrees, if in contact for at least two seconds, or it can burn at lesser temps if exposed for longer. Thus any time a person is walking around holding a 190 degree cup of scalding hot coffee they are holding a beverage quite capable of causing third degree burn injuries within seconds.

In other words, if they bought the coffee from an establishment (such as McDonald’s), then they just bought a very hazardous product and must be informed of said hazards, for their own safety. Otherwise they run the risk of severe burns. But what has McDonald’s done to mitigate such hazards to their own customer?

Facts of Stella Liebeck

Okay, back to Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who was 79 years of age on February 27, 1992 at the time her scalding hot McDonald’s coffee spilled onto her lap. Liebeck was a passenger in an automobile driven by her grandson; they’d just ordered her a coffee from a drive-through window then pulled away. But the car Liebeck was a passenger in didn’t have a beverage holder, and she wanted to add cream and sugar to her beverage. Her grandson parked the car in order for her to do so safely.

That’s when she took the lid off of the scaling beverage, causing it to accidentally spill directly onto her lap. The piping hot beverage dumped onto her cotton sweats and soaked in, thus her clothing was literally holding the burning hot coffee in place as the wet fabric clung to her body, searing her skin.

She suffered third degree burns on her groin and thighs, burns so severe she required skin grafts and an eight day hospital stay. She was released for outpatient recovery, but required aid for three more weeks. Meanwhile the burned areas were permanently scarred.

The Legal Case

Was McDonald’s to blame? According to the jurors who heard the evidence, yes.

Think about it like this. If a consumer ordered a cup of acid, one would not expect it to be handed over without proper safety precautions and warnings. Why? Because acid burns human flesh. So does 190 degree coffee, yet it is cavalierly handed over in flimsy Styrofoam cups, often filled to the brim with only a cheap plastic lid containing it (and bear in mind, the lids in 1992 were much flimsier than most cafes use today). And as McDonald’s own quality assurance manager testified, their coffee, if consumed promptly, would burn the customer’s mouth and throat.

Though the final payout was done in private, the jury actually awarded almost $3 million in damages. This amount was reduced in the final verdict to $640,000, and was appealed. But the appeal hearing never happened; instead, an out-of-court deal was cut rather than going through the appeal process, and the final settlement amount was confidential.

It was revealed that McDonald’s had initially been offered opportunities to settle out of court prior to the first hearing, but they had rejected. Liebeck, it seemed, had offered to settle for $20,000; McDonald’s countered with an offer of only $800, an almost laughable sum considering Liebeck’s medical expenses were expected to total $13,000, and her daughter had missed $5,000 from work in order to act as caretaker during the recovery. Thus, Stella Liebeck came to the figure of $20,000, asking for nothing more than medical bills and lost wages to be covered. It seemed like a very fair offer, yet McDonald’s held firm.

So compared to a verdict of $3 million, McDonald’s could have been off the hook for $20,000. Why didn’t they accept the deal? Greed. In all likelihood they did not want to open a can of worms by setting a precedent, even though they had, in fact, already had 700 other similar incidents..

But when the jury sided with Liebeck, McDonald’s realized they’d made a miscalculation. Instead of doing right by Stella Liebeck, they’d tried and failed to battle it out in court. It would have been more beneficial to have settled in the first place, because the media attention of the ongoing trial was a public relations nightmare for the mega franchise.

The Media and Public Perception

Public perception of both parties was mixed. Some felt Liebeck’s lawsuit was frivolous; but again, she wasn’t the first person to have suffered from the exact same ordeal, and McDonald’s had not taken responsibility to address the issue. They are the largest international restaurant on the planet. They could have easily rectified the issue earlier by changing their brewing practices, offering a better design on their lids, and utilizing a better warning method. They didn’t, to save money.

They even admitted in court that they’d known of the hazard for over a decade. Had they fixed it at any point in the prior ten years before, then perhaps Stella Liebeck, an 83 lb, 79 year old woman from New Mexico, would not have gotten third degree burns caused by their product. (Note: the emaciated Liebeck at lost 20 pounds during her ordeal).

Furthermore, the trial also determined that in those previous ten years, and of those previous 700 reports of persons injured by their product, many of them had been settled out of court for over $500,000. So indeed the precedent had already been set, but McDonald’s neither reformed their ways nor were willing to settle in advance with Liebeck. They just keep refusing to own up to their corporate responsibilities.

For this very reason, part of Liebeck’s initial award was so large because the jury determined to penalize McDonald’s in the hopes they might wake up and reform their practices. Thus the amount was based on “one or two days’ worth of coffee revenues, which were about $1.35 million per day.” McDonald’s was found to be 80% responsible for Liebeck’s severe injuries. Nonetheless, despite the damage to McDonald’s reputation, Stella Liebeck was also victimized by accusations of bringing on a frivolous lawsuit, which was unfair and untrue.

The truth is that McDonald’s brought the judgement on themselves. However, to date they have still not changed their brewing process. But they did at least change their warning label.

Some folks never learn…

Picture of Jeb Butler
Jeb Butler’s career as a Georgia trial lawyer has led to a $150 million verdict in a product liability case against Chrysler for a dangerous vehicle design that caused the death of a child, a $45 million settlement for a young man who permanently lost the ability to walk and talk, and numerous other verdicts and settlements, many of which are confidential at the defendant’s insistence. Jeb has worked on several cases that led to systemic changes and improvements in public safety. He has been repeatedly recognized as a Georgia SuperLawyer and ranks among Georgia’s legal elite. Jeb graduated in the top 10% of his class at UGA Law, argued on the National Moot Court team, and published in the Law Review. He is the founding partner of Butler Kahn law firm. Connect with me on LinkedIn



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