McDonalds Coffee Lawsuit: Can Coffee be Defective?
How did a 49 cent cup of coffee turn into a nearly $3 million dollar lawsuit? In Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, we saw what some called a frivolous claim, while others upheld it as a victory for corporate accountability.
In 1992, Stella Liebeck (age 79) was in the passenger’s seat when she ordered a small cup of coffee. Before the car left the parking lot, she placed the cup between her knees, so she could use both hands to remove the top to mix in cream and sugar. The coffee spilled and scalded Ms. Liebeck, giving her third degree burns on 6% of her skin, including the groin, buttocks, and thighs. She had additional scalding over 16% more of her body, requiring eight days of hospitalization, skin grafting, and two years of follow-up medical treatment.
Attorneys for Ms. Liebeck alleged that McDonald’s served its coffee much hotter than necessary, and at higher temperatures than any other restaurant. They stated that under the law, McDonald’s must be held responsible for manufacturing and selling a “defective” and dangerous product. Ms. Liebeck originally attempted to settle the case for actual medical expenses of $13,000, lost income of $5,000, and an additional $2,000 for miscellaneous costs. McDonald’s refused this offer, agreeing to a maximum payout of only $800.
Once Ms. Liebeck brought lawyers into the picture, they filed suit against the company for gross negligence. They continued attempts to settle out of court, with offers of $90,000 at first, then $300,000 before the trial began. McDonald’s refused all of these, even when a mediator got involved. However, when the jury heard that McDonald’s policies required coffee to be sold at a minimum of 180 degrees, they were shocked. Liquids at this temperature can give skin third-degree burns in a mere two seconds of contact. In addition, evidence was produced indicating the company was aware of the danger. Some seven hundred other customers had complained of coffee-related burns.
The jury in the McDonalds Coffee Lawsuit evaluated the case and determined that while Ms. Liebeck might have been 20% percent responsible for her own injury, McDonald’s contributed 80% of the factors that resulted in her burns. They awarded $160,000 to compensate for actual damages, and $2.7 million as punishment for the negligence.
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