Hot Coffee - The Verdict that Spawned a Legend
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
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
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