More than 700 people were burned. They reported their concerns and injuries to the company. Several suffered serious third-degree burns. For more than 10 years, the company IGNORED the problem. And then Stella was injured. Stella suffered full thickness burns (third-degree burns) over 6 percent of her body which included her inner thighs, buttocks, genital and groin areas.
Stella spent 8 days in the hospital and underwent skin grafting.
Stella spent 8 days in the hospital and underwent skin grafting. She incurred tens of thousands of dollars in hospital and medical bills. After her hospital stay and in an effort to get reimbursed for her some of her medical bills, Stella offered to settle her claim for $20,000. The company rejected her claim. Stella hired a trial lawyer and took the case to trial. After a hard fought battle, she won. At the end of the trial, the judge said that the defendant's conduct was reckless, callous and willful. The jury agreed and awarded Stella damages equal to about two days of the companies coffee sales.
Ready to get past all the hype?
This is just some of the evidence behind the McDonald's scalding coffee case. And there's more. If you are ready to get past the hype and learn the facts, then please take a couple of minutes and review the following accurate case summary.
The True Facts.
Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was in the passenger seat of her grandson's car when she was severely burned by McDonald's coffee in February 1992. Liebeck ordered coffee that was served in a Styrofoam cup at the drive-through window of a local McDonald's. After receiving the order, the grandson pulled his car forward and stopped momentarily so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. (Critics of civil justice, who have pounced on this case, often charge that Liebeck was driving the car or that the vehicle was in motion when she spilled the coffee; neither is true.) 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.
Liebeck sustained third-degree burns over 6 percent of her body...
The sweatpants Liebeck was wearing absorbed the coffee and held it next to her skin. A vascular surgeon determined that Liebeck suffered full thickness burns (or third-degree burns) over 6 percent 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. Liebeck, who also underwent debridement treatments, sought to settle her claim for $20,000, but McDonald's refused.
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.
McDonald's served its coffee at 180-190 degrees.
McDonald's also said during discovery that, based on a consultant's advice, it held its coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain optimum taste. Other establishments sell coffee at substantially lower temperatures, and coffee served at home is generally 135 to 140 degrees.
Further, McDonald's quality assurance manager testified that the company actively enforces a requirement that coffee be held in the pot at 185 degrees, plus or minus five degrees. He also testified that a burn hazard exists with any food substance served at 140 degrees or above, and that McDonald's coffee, 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.
McDonald's knew the coffee was too hot and that customers would consume it while driving.
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. Other testimony showed that as the temperature decreases toward 155 degrees, the extent of the burn relative to that temperature decreases exponentially. Thus, if Liebeck's spill had involved coffee at 155 degrees, the liquid would have cooled and given her time to avoid a serious burn.
McDonald's asserted that customers buy coffee on their way to work or home, intending to consume it there. However, the company's own research showed that customers intend to consume the coffee immediately while driving.
McDonald's minimized the danger to its customers.
McDonald's also argued that consumers know coffee is hot and that its customers want it that way. The company admitted its customers were unaware that they could suffer third-degree burns from the coffee and that a statement on the side of the cup was not a "warning" but a "reminder" since the location of the writing would not warn customers of the hazard. The Wall Street Journal wrote (September 1, 1994), "The testimony of Mr. [Christopher] Appleton, the McDonald's executive, didn't help the company, jurors said later. He testified that McDonald's knew its coffee sometimes caused serious burns, but hadn't consulted burn experts about it. He also testified that McDonald's had decided not to warn customers about the possibility of severe burns, even though most people wouldn't think it possible. Finally, he testified that McDonald's didn't intend to change any of its coffee policies or procedures, saying, 'There are more serious dangers in restaurants.'" The Journal quoted one juror,
McDonald's tried to argue that the danger was "statistically insignificant."
The Journal story continued, "Next for the defense came P. Robert Knaff, a human-factors engineer who earned $15,000 in fees from the case and who, several jurors said later, didn't help McDonald's either. Dr. Knaff told the jury that hot-coffee burns were statistically insignificant when compared to the billion cups of coffee McDonald's sells annually. To jurors, Dr. Knaff seemed to be saying that the graphic photos they had seen of Mrs. Liebeck's burns didn't matter because they were rare. 'There was a person behind every number and I don't think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that,' says juror Betty Farnham."
Damages awarded against McDonald's equaled about two days of coffee sales...
At the beginning of the trial, jury foreman Jerry Goens told the Journal, he "wasn't convinced as to why I needed to be there to settle a coffee spill." By the end of the trial, Betty Farnham told the Journal, "The facts were so overwhelmingly against the company. They were not taking care of their customers." 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.
After the Verdict.
Post-verdict investigation found that the temperature of coffee at the local Albuquerque McDonald's had dropped to 158 degrees Fahrenheit.
The trial court subsequently reduced the punitive award to $480,000 -- or three times compensatory damages -- even though the judge called McDonald's conduct reckless, callous and willful. Subsequent to remittitur, the parties entered a post-verdict settlement.