It seems like any time someone wants to point out a flaw in America’s civil court system, they have to bring up the case of the “old woman who spilled coffee on herself”. Which, at first, kinda makes sense. After all, coffee is usually served hot, right? Most people do, in fact, try to avoid spilling coffee on themselves, so what makes that old lady who sued McDonald’s so special?
Well, as you might guess, there’s more to the story than meets the eye. I don’t know if I completely agree with the decision in Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, as the case is officially known. But I do know that there’s more to it than “stupid old lady spills hot liquid on herself”. I also know that McDonald’s lawyers committed an insanely stupid error in the courtroom, a goof so bad it makes Bill Bucker feel better about himself.
But first… the facts of the case.
On February 27, 1992, a 79-year-old woman named Stella Liebeck decided to join her grandson Chris, who was driving his father (Stella’s son) Jim to the Albuquerque airport. On the way home, Chris stopped at the McDonald’s at 5001 Gibson Boulevard SE so that his grandmother could get a cup of coffee. They got the coffee, and Chris pulled in to a parking space so that Stella could add cream and sugar. Since the car had a curved dash and lacked cup holders, Stella put the cup between her knees and removed the lid. But, as she did, the cup fell backwards, burning her groin, thighs, genitalia and buttocks.
Let’s stop here for a second. Contrary to what you might have heard on the news or late night talk shows at the time, Stella Liebeck was not driving the car, and in fact the car wasn’t even moving at all; some news pundits and late night comedians either said or insinuated that Liebeck was driving the car on the interstate when the spill happened, thus making it even more “her fault”.
Liebeck was taken to the hospital, where it was discovered that she had third-degree burns on 6% of her body and other burns on 16% of her body. She required multiple skin grafts, and ended up spending eight days in the hospital (for an especially gruesome picture of Liebeck’s injuries, click here). Liebeck spent two years recovering from the injury, and was left permanently scarred by the ordeal. In fact, Liebeck lost 20% of her body weight after the accident, and was confined to a wheel chair for a long time thereafter.
Shortly after being discharged from the hospital, Liebeck wrote a letter to McDonald’s asking them to pay her medical bills, which were around $10,500 at the time (around $16,110 in current money). McDonald’s offered her $800. Liebeck and McDonald’s exchanged several more letters, but the company refused to increase their $800 offer. So Liebeck lawyered up.
Those lawyers conducted a study of coffee temperatures. They discovered that coffee made at home is usually served at 135-145°F (57-62°C) and that coffee served at most fast food restaurants fell into the 160-175°F range (71-79°C). McDonald’s, however, served its coffee at 190°F (88°C). Consult any medical source you wish: 190°F liquid can cause third-degree burns on human skin after two to seven seconds of contact. That’s just a fact. And McDonald’s did this under the advice of a third-party consultant. No safety study of any kind was undertaken by either McDonald’s or the consultant.
McDonald’s representatives gave various reasons as to why the fast food giant served its coffee so hot. Some said it’s because customers don’t actually drink the beverage in the car: they’ll stop and get coffee on the way to work, for instance, and not drink it until they’re at their desks, giving it time to cool (even though McDonald’s own internal research showed that people began drinking their coffee immediately). One rep said that McDonald’s keeps it at a high temperature to extend its “shelf life”. Another said that customers “simply prefer it that way”. Former employees cynically suggested that the coffee was kept that hot to prevent dine-in customers from getting too many free refills. Regardless, it was an established fact that McDonald’s official operating manual said that coffee was to be kept and served at 185°F.
Liebeck’s lawyers also discovered over 700 other burn claims from McDonald’s customers from February 1983 to March 1992. Of course, not all of these were third-degree burns like Liebeck’s. But many were. And this is where McDonald’s lawyers screwed up so badly. McDonald’s quality control manager, Christopher Appleton, helpfully testified that McDonald’s served around 20 million cups of coffee a year, and that 700 incidents over nine years was statistically insignificant. Although he’s mathematically correct, it was the totally wrong thing to say to a jury looking at a 79 year-old grandmother. Many jurors who had been on the fence felt that McDonald’s came across as cavalier and uncaring thanks to the testimony. Appleton then argued that all foods hotter than 130 °F (54 °C) constituted a burn hazard, which allowed Liebeck’s lawyer, Reed Morgan, to put McDonald’s in a corner: didn’t they just admit that their own coffee wasn’t safe?
The jury ending up siding with Liebeck. They initially decided to award her $200,000 in compensatory damages, but this was later reduced to $160,000 because they felt that the spill was 20% Liebeck’s fault. Where the jury made headlines was with the punitive damages, which they pegged at $2.7 million. Jurors have stated that this was to punish the company for their lack of caring for Ms. Liebeck’s injuries and the 700+ other injuries suffered due to McDonald’s attitude. Although it sounds like a lot, $2.7 million represented only 2 days of coffee sales, which the jurors felt was fair. Trial judge Robert H. Scott reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, and Ms. Liebeck eventually settled with McDonald’s for $640,000. But the judge also accused McDonald’s of “willful, wanton, and reckless behavior” for ignoring the complaints in the past.
McDonald’s has changed its ways since. It added warning labels to its coffee cups, and reduced its serving temperature to the much more reasonable 158°F (70°C).
If you’re interested in learning more, HBO made a documentary last year called Hot Coffee, which discusses the case and “tort reform” efforts generally.