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The Facts Behind the McDonald's Hot Coffee Case

In actuality, the McDonald's case is an example of great legal work, although many of the specific facts have been tightly sealed behind the gag order that went with the final settlement. The facts that have emerged, from people who followed the case closely, are that McDonald's, aware that its market share was down substantially, hired marketing experts to determine the reason. Their finding was that lost market share was due to a reduction in their breakfast sales, predominantly a take-out business. The story goes that the loss of the breakfast trade resulted from the average of a 22-minute gap from point of purchase to the point of consumption, during which time, the coffee, which was only mediocre in quality, went from tolerable hot coffee to undrinkable cold mud. The problem of how to insure hot coffee 22 minutes after purchase was turned over to production. Plans such as canteen-type containers allegedly proved too expensive, so McDonald's decided to go with a plan to super-heat its coffee. Engineers retro-fitted the coffee urns with super-conduction coils that raised the temperature of the coffee high enough so that it would remain hot 22 minutes after being poured. The problem was that in the first 10 minutes or so it was dangerously hot. In documents allegedly produced in the trial; McDonald's, knowing that the coffee was dangerous for the first few minutes, rejected a plan of using dual urns and advertising that the take-out coffee was specially heated for the enjoyment of the take-out customer. McDonald's rejected any warning label at all. The lawyers who handled the case for the plaintiff were allegedly able to show that there were more than 700 prior reports of accidental burns from the coffee. When the jurors heard about the woman's injuries and McDonald's conduct, they responded in a way that is the pride of the American tort system. In fact their award for compensatory damages, which included the surgical removal of both levels of the plaintiff's vaginal walls, was reported to be in the neighbor- hood of $400,000, a modest sum by most standards. They went on to award $3,000,000 for punitive damages. This amount was equal to McDonald's breakfast coffee sales for only two days.

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