McDonald’s hot coffee strikes again! Decades after the famous personal injury lawsuit against McDonald’s for their scalding coffee, another similar lawsuit is in the news.
But is it déjà vu or a case of bad luck?
In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck was severely burned by McDonald’s coffee that she spilled on her lap. Stella was a passenger in her grandson’s car, and she ordered a cup of coffee through McDonald’s drive-thru.
Her grandson then parked the car so Stella could add cream and sugar. Stella removed the lid and supported the coffee cup between her knees. The cup of coffee spilled into the seat, soaking her sweatpants with the scalding liquid.
The coffee was dangerously hot—hot enough to cause third-degree burns in just three seconds—even through her clothes. The third-degree burns covered 16 percent of her body, including her inner thighs and genitals.
The skin was burned away to the layers of muscle and fatty tissue. The injuries resulted in eight days of hospitalization, multiple skin grafts, and a two-year recovery.
Stella tried to settle the case for $20,000, but McDonald’s countered with their highest offer landing at $800. This did not even cover her medical expenses!
During the trial, the jurors saw graphic photos of Stella’s burns and heard experts testify about how hot coffee should be. It was revealed that McDonald’s coffee was 30 to 40 degrees hotter than the coffee served by other companies.
Evidence was also disclosed that 700 other people (including children) had been burned before by McDonald’s coffee; and, even though the company knew its coffee could cause serious burns—and was, in fact, doing so—McDonald’s decided that the number of burns was not significant when compared to the billions of cups served annually (and the billions of dollars it made on those sales).
In the end, the jurors awarded Stella $200,000 in compensatory damages for her pain, suffering, and medical costs, but those damages were reduced to $160,000 because the jury found her 20 percent responsible. (In a comparative negligence jurisdiction, the jury assigns the degree of fault of each part, and the compensatory damages are reduced based on the plaintiff’s measure of fault.)
The jury awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages (which was the equivalent of two days of McDonald’s revenue from coffee sales). The trial judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000 while noting that McDonald’s behavior had been “willful, wanton, and reckless.” The parties later settled.
How did McDonald’s change its business model after this verdict? The answer can be surprising. McDonald’s coffee is still the hottest coffee in the fast food industry, resting between 174 to 195 degrees Fahrenheit (remember, water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit).
McDonald’s solutions were to add warnings about the hot liquid in the coffee cup container, redesign their cups and lids to be thicker and sturdier, and add a cup sleeve for extra protection to the customer’s hand.
These changes did not solve the problem as other claims were filed. The most recent claim is from San Francisco where 85-year-old Mable Childress suffered first and second-degree burns after being handed a cup of McDonald’s coffee with a lid not properly secured. When she tried to take a sip of her coffee, the lid came off and spilled onto her legs, groin, and stomach.
Childress also claims that she tried to speak to a manager to report the incident immediately, but three employees “refused to help her.” After an hour spent with no progress made, she left and went straight to the emergency room.
Childress claims the incident has left her with scarring, ongoing physical and emotional pain, and medical expenses. Mable’s lawsuit does not focus on the temperature of the coffee (yet), but on the negligence of its employees in handling the coffee.
Like Stella’s case, it will be interesting to see how much responsibility is placed on Mable to confirm that the coffee lid was secured before drinking from the cup. Meanwhile, legal news geeks (like me) will enjoy the dialogue about the comparative negligence issues in this second round of hot coffee cases.
Thanks, McDonald’s. I’m Lovin’ It!