Proponents of tort reform continue to distort the facts of the McDonald’s hot coffee verdict in their ongoing nationwide attack on the civil justice system. Public opinion has been unfairly influenced by these distortions. The full story of this $2.9 million verdict needs to be told.
In the McDonald’s case, eighty-one year-old Stella Liebeck spilled a small cup of coffee while sitting in a car. She suffered third degree burns over 6% of her body. Her inner thighs, buttocks, genital area and groin were burned. She was hospitalized for eight days and required painful skin grafts and debridement. At the time of the spill, Mrs. Liebeck was trying to remove the cup’s lid to add cream and sugar. She was neither driving the vehicle nor was the vehicle moving.
McDonald’s was well aware that its coffee caused burns. At trial, company documents showed more than 700 customers had complained of coffee burn injuries ranging from mild to third degree in the previous ten years. That amounts to more than on e complaint per week over the decade. Some of the burns were similar to Mrs. Liebeck’s burns. The Wall Street Journal reported that McDonald’s had settled many of these scalding injury claims for more than $500,000.
McDonald’s, known for its fastidious control over franchises, requires keeping its coffee at 180 – 190 degrees Fahrenheit. That is far hotter than coffee sold at other restaurants or coffee brewed at home, which generally ranges from 135 – 140 degrees. McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that the company knew that a burn hazard existed with a food substance served above 140 degrees. He admitted that the coffee, at the temperature it was poured, was not fit for human consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat. He testified that McDonald’s had no intention of reducing the temperature of its coffee.
Another McDonald’s executive testified that McDonald’s knew its coffee sometimes caused serious burns, but had not consulted burn experts about it. He testified that McDonald’s had made the decision not to warn customers about the possibility of severe burns. He also testifies that McDonald’s did not intend to change any of its coffee policies or procedures.
The jury quickly arrived at the conclusion that McDonald’s was liable. One juror stated that the case was about the “callous disregard for the safety of the people.” Another juror flatly asserted, “They were not taking care of their customers.”
The jury awarded compensatory damages of $200,000 which they reduced to $160,000 after determining that Mrs. Liebeck was 20% at fault for spilling the coffee. The jury also found that McDonald’s had engaged in willful, reckless, malicious or wanton conduct. It awarded punitive damages of $2.7 million which is the equivalent of two days of company-wide coffee sales. The trial judge reduced the punitive damage award to $480,000, three times the compensatory damages.
The previous 700 complaints of burn injuries had no effect on McDonald’s policies. It took the punitive damage award to drive home the message that McDonald’s coffee was too hot. A post-verdict investigation revealed that the local Albuquerque McDonald’s where Mrs. Liebeck had been injured had lowered its coffee temperature to 158 degrees. Because of the effort to recover damages in this case, injuries have been prevented. Once again, the civil justice system had a direct positive impact upon the safety and well-being of consumers.