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Hot Coffee - The Verdict that Spawned a Legend

Updated on February 10, 2013
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The McDonald's Hot Coffee Verdict has become a metaphor

The $2.9 Million verdict in against fast food chain McDonald's fast became a legend as well as a metaphor for runaway jury verdicts. The case is Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants No. D-202 CV-93-02419, Bernallilo NM District Court, 1995.

There's a difference between the facts of the case and the thumbnail reports that spread like wildfire. 79 year-old Stella Liebeck sat in the front passenger seat of a car with her nephew behind the wheel. They purchased coffee at a McDonald’s drive-through. Ms. Liebeck steadied the coffee cup between her knees and tried to pull the top off, spilling the entire cup of coffee onto her lap. She suffered third degree burns to her thighs, buttocks and groin. The burns were exacerbated because she was wearing cotton pants. The absorbent cloth held the hot liquid against her skin. She spent 8 days in the hospital during which she underwent painful skin grafts. She lost 20 pounds. After her initial hospitalization she required 2 years of follow-up medical care.

The 12-member jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages (which was reduced to $160,000 based on a finding that Liebeck was 20% comparatively negligent). The jury also awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages. The trial judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000 (three times the compensatory damages), for a total of $640,000.

Newspapers, TV news shows and the nation in general flipped out. How could any ury in its right mind award millions to a woman who held a coffee cup between her knees? Isn't coffee supposed to be hot? Didn't she know it was hot? The case went from verdict to icon in a matter of days. Tort reform advocates now had a thumbnail story to shout about a runaway jury system. A woman buys a hot cup of coffee, puts it between her knees, spills it and blames somebody else. Case closed. The jury was nuts in the court of public opinion.

A blister caused by spilled hot coffee

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McDonald’s had over 700 prior complaints of excessively hot coffee in the 10 years before Ms. Liebeck's incident.

The facts tell a different story.

Stella Liebeck's attorney didn't argue that McDonald's was negligent to serve hot coffee. The case was built on one argument: that it was unreasonably dangerous to serve extremely hot. The cold hard facts pour cold water on the hysteria.

· The evidence presented showed that the coffee was served at 180° Fahrenheit.

· Plaintiff called an expert witness to the stand who testified that liquid at 180° can produce third degree burns in about 12 seconds. This didn't give Ms. Liebeck enough time to pull off her garments or take and other steps to stop the hot liquid from burning her skin.

· There was also evidence that McDonald’s had over 700 prior complaints of excessively hot coffee in the 10 years before Ms. Liebeck's incident.

· The car was not moving at the time. Her nephew had pulled over to a parking area so that his aunt could put sugar into the coffee. In the popular legend the story went that Ms. Liebeck was at the wheel and the car was moving.

After reading this article, do you think that justice was done in this case

See results

The case settled while on appeal for an undisclosed amount. The Liebeck case still generates controversy, some arguing that the case is Exhibit A of a tort system out of control. But when you look at the facts, it is really just an ordinary negligence case. Contrary to the legend, the jury appears to have been quite reasonable. They listened to the defense arguments and found that Ms. Liebeck was partially at fault, assessing her with 20 percent contributory negligence. The award itself doesn't seem to be outrageous either. $200,000 in compensatory damages, which includes pain and suffering, doesn't seem to be excessive given the severity of plaintiff's injury.. Have you ever suffered a bad burn? For a personal account of the agony of a burn injury see an excellent article on these pages by Ken Taub entitled The Burn. LINK http://kenja.hubpages.com/hub/The-Burn

You be the judge.

This article has been excerpted from my book Justice in America – How it Works – How it Fails. https://www.createspace.com/3637622

Copyright © 2013 by Russell F. Moran

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    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 4 years ago from Arizona

      Of course I never knew the facts. i am still on the fence. However there is justification here on some points. Putting coffee between your knees is not a good idea. The tops of the coffee are not foolproof. She suffered a lot and I do have a better understanding now of what happened. Voting up and sharing.

    • profile image

      Justsilvie 4 years ago

      The true facts of this case should not leave any doubt this was not a frivolous lawsuit. Anyone interested in this case should see the documentary “Hot Coffee” http://www.hotcoffeethemovie.com Goes beyond just this lawsuit. Shows Big Business in a true light and it is not a flattering one. Voted up and sharing!

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 4 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      The exaggerated facts of the case were all I had known previous to your article. This puts things in a different light. Having had 700 previous complaints about excessively hot coffee should have triggered some changes in the restaurant's serving policy. Thanks for the story.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      A classic case of mass hysteria without knowing the facts. I would say there is no reason for anyone to be served a liquid at 180 degrees....I think that would be considered excessively hot in Alaska. :) Good job my friend.

    • Hawaiian Scribe profile image

      Stephanie Launiu 4 years ago from Hawai'i

      Thanks for an interesting hub. I never knew the facts of the case and only heard of it in bits and pieces on TV. With a spin depending on who was telling the story. Voted up, interesting and tweeting. Aloha, Stephanie

    • faythef profile image

      Faythe F. 4 years ago from USA

      Wow...Its amazing to find out all the details after all these years....

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 4 years ago from Southern California

      Carol7777

      I am going to have to disagree with this hubs opinion.

      First of all - yes coffee is hot, and 180 degrees is really hot.

      A finding of only 20% for comparative negligence is a real problem in logic.

      Without the action of the plaintiff there wouldn't have been any damage at all. So the comparative negligence should have been 100%.

      But for the plaintiff's action there would have been no damage.

      As for putting even non 180 degree HOT coffee between your legs is negligent.

      Then to pull off the cap while between the legs is another negligent act.

      The degree of damage was caused solely by the plaintiff.

      Does that really sound like only 20% negligent?

      I suppose if she burned her mouth it would also not be her fault, or if she drank it like a not hot drink, and it burned her throat it would also not be her fault.

      Every child growing up has learned the lesson of drinking hot drinks. At 71, you would think the plaintiff would have had some good life experience that would have prevented her from doing something inherently stupid.

      There are five elements to prove negligence, and the element of the act is missing here. The act was an negligent act of the plaintiff.

      The whole purpose of comparative negligence was to replace the harshness of the contributory negligence which was an absolute bar for the plaintiffs suit. Meaning any contributory negligence by the plaintiff would lose the case for the plaintiff.

      So comparative negligence was more equitable. But in this case, the plaintiff knew that coffee was hot, and that handling the coffee container was a dangerous act, that could cause the coffee to spill.

      Lets carry this case one step farther.

      Suppose that instead of spilling the coffee on herself, it went on her nephew. Would the nephew, or anyone that she might have spilled the coffee have sued her or McDonald or both of them. Remember it was her negligent act that resulted in the damage. The extent of the damage is only important once you have completed the first four elements of negligence.

      I doubt that if this scenario was given as a question on the BAR Exam before this case existed, I don't believe that anyone would have gotten the answer that the jury found.

      It might have made more sense if the lid was faulty, and the plaintiff sued under Product Liability.

      What gave the jury the idea that the plaintiff was only 20% negligent?

      Thanks

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 4 years ago from Germany

      This is a very interesting story. I have only heard bits and pieces about it. Seems like a joke to me. Now I know the facts. Thanks for sharing. Have a great week!

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 4 years ago from Southern California

      Thelma

      Exactly how did these "facts" warrant the award?

      If you need a reference, read my comments.

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 4 years ago from Southern California

      Russ

      I am sure that you disagree with me, but this is more of an example of how the law has been watered down.

      BTW, I hope you did well with the blizzard.

      I heard that Suffolk County got over two feet of snow, while Nassau country got about a foot.

      Where you are it is very unprotected and being so close to the end of the northern tip of LI you probably get the snow removal last.

      Those Noreasters have been devastating recently.

      Again, I hope you and your family did OK.

    • That Grrl profile image

      Laura Brown 4 years ago from Barrie, Ontario, Canada

      I did hear the version with more facts the first time around. But, I still think this was a case of blaming someone else for something you could have fore seen and avoided. Why - knowing it was hot coffee, would you put something between your legs that way? The cup would have been hot on her skin, that should have been a tip off right there. Maybe she had other junk in the cup holder of her car. That was up to her to deal with.

      I buy hot coffee and put it in the cup holder to cool down. By the time I get where I'm going - or where I want a driving break the coffee is just right. If she needed help getting the lid off she could have taken it inside and asked the staff for help. There were other options and anyone with common sense could see the one she chose was risky.

      How many times have you taken a lid off something and had it jiggle and spill something? No matter what her lawyer argued, I still think McDonalds was generous to pay out for that one. I feel sorry for her to be burned, but it was something she could have prevented.

      I've been burned several times, less drastically. Some of them were work-related (I was burned by a 425F pellet in my hand), yet the best I got was the afternoon off so I could get over it.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Coffee between knees is not a good idea, that's why the jury found her 20 percent responsible

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks justsilvie. That documentary came out after I had written about this case in my book. They got it right.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Peg. Yes, 700 prior incidents certainly should have led someone at McD to ask if something may be wrong.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Bill. The law expects all of us to act reasonably under the circumstances. The only reasonable thing to do with 180 degree liquid is to set it for a half hour before touching it, a weird burden.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks my friend. Yes, it's a case that spun out of control.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks for your comment faythef.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      An important thing to keep in mind is that the jury heard and saw ALL opf the evidence, leading them to conclude that she was 20 percent at fault. They heard the direct and cross examination and all of the details. Except in rare cases is it worthwhile second guessing a jury (Well, the OJ jury maybe).

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Thelma.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Ib. Yes we weathere the storm okay. Temperature in high 40s today so a lot of melting going on.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks for your comments my friend. As I mentioned in another reply, we should be cautious when second guessing a jury who saw and heard all of the evidence, while we only read reports. They did find her 20 percent responsible for the accident. As far as the amoun of compensatory damages ($200 K) I think that is terribly low, given the pain and procedures she went through.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks ib - I read and commented. Appreciate your thoughts and analysis.

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 4 years ago from Southern California

      Russ

      I have to say it one more time.

      Did you read my comment to Carol7777.

      Especially this part

      -------------------------

      Suppose that instead of spilling the coffee on herself, it went on her nephew. Would the nephew, or anyone that she might have spilled the coffee have sued her or McDonald or both of them. Remember it was her negligent act that resulted in the damage. The extent of the damage is only important once you have completed the first four elements of negligence.

      __________________________-

      Another point that I didn't bring up to argue the 700 complaints about the coffee being too hot.

      What percentage of people buying coffee at McDonalds nationwide daily, weekly, monthly, yearly does the 700 complaints represent?

      What would that percentage represent if even applied to one McDonalds for those time frames?

      ===

      Juries have helped convict innocent people because they believe the prosecutor's version of the circumstantial evidence.

      Jurors and the defendant are the only two that are involved in the court case that are not being paid.

      Jurors are also tainted by the many legal drama shows, and they think what they see is a proper understanding of the law.

      I respectfully disagree with anyone that doesn't think that the legal system today has not strayed too far from its original intent.

      Thanks, glad you made it through the storm.

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 4 years ago from Southern California

      Russ

      I went one step further and published a hub about the legal system using this case as an example.

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