When people call to mind a frivolous lawsuit, inevitably the 'McDonald's coffee case' comes up. How much more frivolous does it get than winning millions of dollars for spilling coffee on yourself? However, this lawsuit was actually far from frivolous, yet there are still serious misconceptions about what happened in the case.
Stella Liebeck was a 79-year old retired department store clerk and grandmother from Albuquerque, New Mexico. She and her grandson went through a McDonald's drive-thru. Liebeck was the passenger in the car. Her grandson had pulled over and stopped the car to give Liebeck a chance to add cream and sugar to her coffee. Liebeck had placed the coffee cup in her lap and was removing the lid when she spilled the coffee on herself. At the time of the spill, Liebeck was wearing sweatpants. The sweatpants absorbed the hot liquid, keeping it close to her skin.
The coffee that Liebeck spilled on her lap was estimated to be around 180-190 degrees. It was McDonald's company policy to keep its coffee at this extreme temperature. It stated the reason for doing this was for "optimal taste." In addition, the company stated that McDonald's customers want and expect their coffee to be very hot.
Customers may like hot coffee, but that coffee should not cause third degree burns. Unfortunately, third degree burns are exactly what Liebeck got when her coffee spilled on her lap. She had third degree burns on her: groin, inner thighs, buttocks, perineum, and genitals. She required skin grafts and debridement treatment (which is the removal of dead skin). The accident disabled Liebeck for two years and left her permanently disfigured.
Liebeck was not the first to be burned by McDonald's coffee either. More than 700 other claims had been brought against the fast food giant after people had been burned by hot coffee in the ten years prior to Liebeck's lawsuit. In fact Liebeck's lawyer, Reed Morgan, had filed a lawsuit in 1986 because a woman had gotten third degree burns after being burned by McDonald's coffee. (That case settled for $27,500).
Liebeck did not set out seeking millions of dollars in compensation. When she first approached the company, she was simply seeking to recover her medical expenses, totaling $11,000. It was only after the company refused to pay, that Liebeck retained an attorney and filed suit. In addition, Liebeck and her attorney made other attempts to settle the case but each time McDonald's refused and the case progressed to trial. At trial, in addition to the jury learning about the prior burn claims, the jury heard testimony from McDonald's quality assurance manager who stated that the coffee could scald someone who consumed it at such a high temperature. Furthermore, the company's human factors engineer testified that the "number of hot coffee burns that occur are 'statistically insignificant' when compared to the billion cups of coffee McDonald's sells annually."
Because of evidence like this, the jury found in Liebeck's favor. The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages, which was then reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Liebeck 20% liable for the accident. In addition, the jury awarded punitive damages. Instead of compensating the plaintiff, punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant for bad behavior and deter similar behavior in the future. In this case, the damages were awarded to punish McDonald's for serving coffee it knew was too hot and injuring customers. To decide on the figure, the jury simply calculated two days of McDonald's coffee sales. Per day sales were $1.34 million, thus the jury awarded Liebeck $2.7 million. Liebeck's damage award was later reduced to $640,000. However, the amount she ultimately received was actually kept confidential, as the judge ordered the parties to engage in a post-verdict settlement conference.
Interestingly, Liebeck's lawsuit was not the last time McDonald's has been sued for scalding coffee. In 2013, Joan Fino also brought a lawsuit against the company for burns to her groin area from a coffee spill. Ultimately it looks like McDonald's has not yet learned its lesson, as people are continuing to be burned by coffee that is simply too hot.