McDonalds coffee and the Liebeck lawsuit

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I've read recently that the McDonald's coffee lawsuit is back in the news again, being used as an example of frivolous lawsuits, irresponsible juries, excessive verdicts, a generally out-of-control legal system, and thus a justification for tort reform. However, after doing some research, I discovered that the case was hardly as unreasonable as people often make it out to be.

I originally wrote this for Usenet several years ago; the links at the bottom of the essay may have expired.

McDonalds coffee and the Liebeck lawsuit

Lis Riba, 2000

Here are some facts about what really happened:

At the trial, it was revealed:

  • McDonalds required their coffee kept at 185 degrees Fahrenheit, plus or minus 5 degrees, significantly higher than other establishments. [Coffee is usually served at 135 to 140 degrees]
  • An expert testified that 180 degree liquids will cause full thickness burns in 2 to 7 seconds.
  • McDonalds knew before this accident that burn hazards exist with any foods served above 140 degrees.
  • McDonalds knew that its coffee would burn drinkers at the temperature they served it.
  • McDonalds research showed that customers consumed coffee immediately while driving.
  • McDonalds knew of over 700 people burned by its coffee, including many third-degree burns similar to Ms. Liebeck's.
  • McDonalds had received previous requests from consumers and safety organizations to lower their coffee temperature.

There were many things McDonalds could've done to prevent injuries:

  • lowering the holding temperature of their coffee,
  • putting warning labels on the cups not to drink immediately,
  • redesigning the cups to minimize tipping or prevent drinking in cars

McDonalds knew of the risk and knew scores of injured customers, but did nothing to mitigate the chance of injury.

Evidence showed that McDonalds served their coffee so hot to save money. This let them get away with a cheaper grade of coffee and cut down on the number of free refills they had to give away. McDonalds executives testified that they thought it would be cheaper to pay claims and worker's compensation benefits to people burned by their coffee versus making any of these changes.

Even the trial court judge called McDonalds' conduct willful, wanton, reckless and callous.

On to the situation at hand:

  • Stella Liebeck, age 79, was a passenger in the car.
  • The car was at a full stop so she could add cream and sugar to her coffee. [She was not the driver and the car was not moving.]
  • The cup tipped and spilled over her lap.
  • Within a few seconds, Ms. Liebeck suffered third-degree burns over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, genitals and groin.
  • Ms. Liebeck was hospitalized for 8 days, and required skin grafting and debridement treatments.
  • Parts of Ms. Liebeck's body were permanently scarred.
  • Ms. Liebeck tried to settle with McDonald's for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses. McDonalds offered her $800. She sought mediation, but McDonald's refused.
  • The jury initially awarded Ms. Liebeck the equivalent of two days worth of coffee sales for McDonalds as punitive damages.
  • The trial judge reduced the verdict to something under $600,000.

McDonalds has since lowered the temperature on their coffee.

Information comes primarily from

Other sources I used and/or would recommend on this case are:

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