A Lookback on the McDonald’s Coffee Case: Why Did the Coffee Chain Lose?

With over 35 million in California, thousands of its residents experience a variety of personal injuries. Los Angeles alone may register more than 150 accidents daily.

In some cases, though, people in California can benefit from the expert guidance of a personal injury attorney. The injury they sustain may not be entirely their fault. A lawyer can help them file a claim or even damages to cover medical expenses and the stress the trauma might have caused them.

To illustrate the importance of working with a personal injury expert, let’s talk about the famous (and controversial) McDonald’s coffee case.

Here’s the Background

At first glance, the McDonald’s coffee case sounds laughable and incredulous. In fact, it may give the impression that Americans sue for just about everything.

In February 1992, then 79-year-old Stelle Liebeck—who lived in Alburquerque, New Mexico—drove through a McDonald’s drive-thru with her grandson, who was behind the wheel. She ordered McDonald’s coffee.

While the vehicle was not in motion, she placed the steaming-hot coffee in between her knees to remove the lid and probably add the cream and sugar. Unfortunately, the contents or the coffee spilled when she opened the cover.

That the coffee was scalding is an understatment. Because of the sweatpants she wore, she developed full-thickness or third-degree burns. It damaged not only her skin but also her fats and muscles in her groin, buttocks, perineum, and thighs.

With the incident, she stayed in the hospital for eight days, underwent skin grafting surgeries, and, ultimately, left her permanently disfigured.

The Demand and then the Lawsuit

Much of the case was published in the Journal of Consumer & Commercial Law. There, one will learn that she didn’t file a lawsuit against the mega fast-food chain right away. Instead, she requested that the store pay for her medical expenses, which amounted to $11,000.

McDonald’s refused. With no other recourse, she sought the help of a personal injury attorney in Houston, who, incidentally, helped another woman settle with the same store for the same reason in 1986. But before filing the lawsuit, they demanded $90,000, this time to cover not only her healthcare spending but also her pain and suffering.

law concept

McDonald’s countered with $800—that was the last straw. What then followed, based on the journal’s article, some facts that make the case a classic personal injury lawsuit:

  • Liebeck and her attorney alleged that the product, which was the coffee, was defective because it of its excessive heat and lack of adequat warning of the possible effect if the content will spill.
  • During the trial, it turns out that McDonald’s was completely aware of the possible harmful effect of their hot coffee. In fact, they already received hundreds of similar complaints through the years and settled some of them.
  • While the chain acknowledged its awareness of the problem, it continued to serve hot coffee to maintain the quality of its product. Their coffee experts (as well as the National Coffee Association) said that the best temperature for the beverage is between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal taste. Note that the boiling temperature in Fahrentheit is 212 degrees. The temperature of Liebeck’s coffee was around 180 to 190 degrees.
  • McDonald’s also asserted that their customers expect their coffee to be hot when served. They also claimed that Liebeck was also at fault for the way she handled her coffee. Her age, and its effect on the skin, might have partly contributed to the severity of the burns.

The jury, which deliberated for days, voted in favor of Mrs. Liebeck and that McDonald’s must be held accountable for product defect claims and breaches of implied warranty of merchantability and implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose.

In retrospect, McDonald’s was a liable party in this personal injury lawsuit because it was aware of the effects of the coffee. It was too hot for personal consumption and yet chose to do something to improve customer safety. Not even a sign was available.

The Aftermath

The jury believed that the plaintiff deserved to receive $200,000 in compensatory damages and a whopping $2.7 million in punitive damages, determined by calculating the daily revenues from the coffee of the store.

The total undisclosed amount she received was less than $600,000. Her $200,000 in compensatory damage reduced to $160,000 since the jury found Mrs. Liebeck to be 20% liable. (This is based on the concept of comparative negligence.) The punitive damages dropped to $480,000.

Beyond these, the case actually changed some of the store’s policies. For example, they started putting up warning signs about the handling of hot coffee. McDonald’s might have also decreased their coffee temperature between 175 and 195 degrees.

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