Stella Liebeck

stella award

Hot Cup

Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, also known as the McDonald’s coffee case, was a 1994 product liability lawsuit that became a flash point in the tort reform debate in the US. A New Mexico civil jury awarded $2.86 million to plaintiff Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman who suffered third-degree burns in her pelvic region when she accidentally spilled hot coffee in her lap after purchasing it from a McDonald’s restaurant. Liebeck was hospitalized for eight days while she underwent skin grafting, followed by two years of medical treatment.

Liebeck’s attorneys argued that at 180–190 °F coffee was defective, claiming it was too hot and more likely to cause serious injury than coffee served at any other establishment. The jury damages included $160,000 to cover medical expenses and $2.7 million in punitive damages. The trial judge reduced the final verdict to $640,000, and the parties settled for a confidential amount before an appeal was decided. The case was said by some to be an example of frivolous litigation; ABC News called it, ‘the poster child of excessive lawsuits,’ while legal scholar Jonathan Turley said it was ‘a meaningful and worthy lawsuit.’

On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman from Albuquerque, ordered a 49-cent cup of coffee from the drive-through window of a local McDonald’s restaurant. Liebeck was in the passenger’s seat of her grandson’s 1989 Ford Probe, which did not have cup holders, and her grandson Chris parked the car so that she could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Liebeck placed the coffee cup between her knees and pulled the far side of the lid toward her to remove it. In the process, she spilled the entire cup of coffee on her lap. The sweatpants she was wearing absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin, scalding her thighs, buttocks, and groin.

Liebeck was taken to the hospital, where it was determined that she had suffered third-degree burns on six percent of her skin and lesser burns over sixteen percent. She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent skin grafting. During this period, she lost 20 pounds (nearly 20% of her body weight), reducing her to 83 pounds. She suffered permanent disfigurement and was partially disabled for up to two years as a result of the incident.

Liebeck sought to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000 to cover her actual and anticipated expenses. Her past medical expenses were $10,500; her anticipated future medical expenses were approximately $2,500; and her loss of income was approximately $5,000 for a total of approximately $18,000. Instead, the company offered only $800. When McDonald’s refused to raise its offer, Liebeck retained Texas attorney Reed Morgan who filed suit in New Mexico District Court accusing McDonald’s of ‘gross negligence’ for selling coffee that was ‘unreasonably dangerous’ and ‘defectively manufactured.’

Two years after the injury, and after several offers to settle were rejected by McDonald’s, the case went to trial. Liebeck’s attorneys discovered that McDonald’s required franchisees to hold coffee at 180–190 °F, hot enough to cause a third-degree burn in two to seven seconds. Liebeck’s attorney argued that coffee should never be served hotter than 140 °F, and that a number of other establishments served coffee at a substantially lower temperature than McDonald’s. Expert testimony suggested that at 180 °F third-degree burns take 12 to 15 seconds, and that lowering the temperature to 160 °F would increase the time to 20 seconds. Liebeck’s attorneys argued that these extra seconds could provide adequate time to remove the coffee from exposed skin, thereby preventing many burns. McDonald’s claimed that the reason for serving such hot coffee in its drive-through windows was that those who purchased the coffee typically were commuters who wanted to drive a distance with the coffee; the high initial temperature would keep the coffee hot during the trip. However, the company’s own research showed that some customers intend to consume the coffee immediately while driving.

Other documents obtained from McDonald’s showed that from 1982 to 1992 the company had received more than 700 reports of people burned by McDonald’s coffee to varying degrees of severity, and had settled claims arising from scalding injuries for more than $500,000. McDonald’s quality control manager, Christopher Appleton, testified that this number of injuries was insufficient to cause the company to evaluate its practices. He argued that all foods hotter than 130 °F constituted a burn hazard, and that restaurants had more pressing dangers to warn about. The plaintiffs argued that Appleton conceded that McDonald’s coffee would burn the mouth and throat if consumed when served.

Applying the principles of comparative negligence, the jury found that McDonald’s was 80% responsible for the incident and Liebeck was 20% at fault. Though there was a warning on the coffee cup, the jury decided that the warning was neither large enough nor sufficient. They awarded Liebeck US$200,000 in compensatory damages, which was then reduced by 20% to $160,000. In addition, they awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages. The jurors apparently arrived at this figure from Morgan’s suggestion to penalize McDonald’s for one or two days’ worth of coffee revenues, which were about $1.35 million per day. The judge reduced punitive damages to $480,000, three times the compensatory amount, for a total of $640,000. The decision was appealed by both McDonald’s and Liebeck but the parties settled out of court for an undisclosed amount less than $600,000.

McDonald’s asserts that the outcome of the case was a fluke, and attributed the loss to poor communications and strategy by an unfamiliar insurer representing a franchise. Liebeck’s attorney, Reed Morgan, and the Association of Trial Lawyers of America defended the result in Liebeck by claiming that McDonald’s reduced the temperature of its coffee after the suit. Detractors have argued that McDonald’s refusal to offer more than an $800 settlement for the $10,500 in medical bills indicated that the suit was meritless and highlighted the fact that Liebeck spilled the coffee on herself rather than any wrongdoing on the company’s part. They also argued that the coffee was not defective because McDonald’s coffee conformed to industry standards, and coffee continues to be served as hot or hotter today at McDonald’s and chains like Starbucks. They further stated that the vast majority of judges who consider similar cases dismiss them before they get to a jury. From 2002 to 2007, an offshoot from a weekly news column by writer Randy Cassingham resulted in a website called the ‘Stella Awards,’ which purported to give awards to people who filed ‘outrageous and frivolous lawsuits.’

Since Liebeck, McDonald’s claims it has not reduced the service temperature of its coffee and that its policy today is to serve coffee between (176–194 °F), relying on more sternly-worded warnings on cups made of rigid foam to avoid future liability, though it continues to face lawsuits over hot coffee. The Specialty Coffee Association supports improved packaging methods rather than lowering the temperature at which coffee is served. The association has successfully aided the defense of subsequent coffee burn cases. Similarly, as of 2004, Starbucks sells coffee at 175–185 °F, and the executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America reported that the standard serving temperature is 160–185 °F. Retailers today sell coffee as hot or hotter than the coffee that burned Stella Liebeck.

In 2011, HBO premiered a documentary about tort reform problems titled ‘Hot Coffee.’ A large portion of the film covered Liebeck’s lawsuit. This included news clips, comments from celebrities and politicians about the case, as well as myths and misconceptions, including how many people thought she was driving when the incident occurred and thought that she suffered only minor superficial burns. The film also discussed in great depth how ‘Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants’ is often used and misused to describe a frivolous lawsuit and referenced in conjunction with tort reform efforts. It argued that corporations have spent millions distorting certain tort cases in order to promote tort reform.

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