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Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants

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Decided  August 18, 1994
Died  2004
Judge(s) sitting  Robert H. Scott
Children  Judy Allen
Liebeck v McDonalds by Kevin Eng
Full case name  Stella Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, P.T.S., Inc. and McDonald's International, Inc.
Citation(s)  1994 Extra LEXIS 23 (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. 1994), 1995 WL 360309 (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. 1994),

Similar  McLibel case, Pearson v. Chung, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Campbell

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 1994 product liability lawsuit that became a flashpoint in the debate in the United States over tort reform. A New Mexico civil jury awarded $2.86 million to plaintiff Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman who 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 she underwent skin grafting, followed by two years of medical treatment.

Contents

Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants Awesome Actually Woman First Burned by McDonald39s Hot Coffee Then

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 to cover medical expenses and compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. The trial judge reduced the final verdict to $640,000, and the parties settled for a confidential amount before an appeal was decided.

The 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". In June 2011, HBO premiered Hot Coffee, a documentary that discussed in depth how the Liebeck case has centered in debates on tort reform.

Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants Know the Factsquot Resources for Consumers

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Burn incident

Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants Liebeck v McDonald39s Restaurants YouTube

On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, ordered a 49-cent cup of coffee from the drive-through window of a local McDonald's restaurant located at 5001 Gibson Boulevard Southeast. Liebeck was in the passenger's seat of a 1989 Ford Probe owned by her grandson Chris, which did not have cup holders, and Chris 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.

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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 kg, nearly 20% of her body weight), reducing her to 83 pounds (38 kg). After the hospital stay, Liebeck needed care for 3 weeks, which was provided by her daughter. Liebeck suffered permanent disfigurement after the incident and was partially disabled for two years.

Pre-trial

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 New Mexico District Court 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 verdict

The trial took place from August 8–17, 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). At 190 °F (88 °C), the coffee would cause a third-degree burn in two to seven seconds. 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. Liebeck's lawyers presented the jury with evidence that 180 °F (82 °C) coffee like that McDonald's served may produce third-degree burns (where skin grafting is necessary) 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, the company's own research showed that some 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 August 18, 1994. Applying the principles of comparative negligence, the jury found that McDonald's was 80% responsible for the incident and Liebeck was 20% 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 US$200,000 in compensatory damages, which was then reduced by 20% to $160,000. In addition, they awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages. The jurors apparently arrived at this figure from Morgan's suggestion to penalize McDonald's for one or 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 less than $600,000.

Aftermath

The 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.

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 also argued that the coffee was not defective because McDonald's coffee conformed to industry standards, and coffee continues to be served as hot or hotter today at McDonald's and chains like Starbucks. They further stated 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.

Similar lawsuits

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 England 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.

Coffee temperature

In 1994, a spokesman for the National Coffee Association said that the temperature of McDonald's coffee conformed to industry standards. An "admittedly unscientific" survey by the LA Times that year found that coffee was served between 157 and 182 °F, and that two locations tested served hotter coffee than McDonald's.

Since Liebeck, McDonald's has not reduced the service temperature of its coffee. McDonald's policy today is to serve coffee at 80–90 °C (176–194 °F), 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 documentary

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 Report

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. 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.

References

Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants Wikipedia