Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants

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Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants
Full case name Stella Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, P.T.S., Inc. and McDonald's International, Inc.
Decided August 18, 1994
Citation(s) 1994 Extra LEXIS 23 (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. 1994), 1995 WL 360309 (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. 1994),
Court membership
Judge(s) sitting Robert H. Scott

Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants,[1] also known as the McDonald's coffee case and the hot coffee lawsuit, was a 1994 product liability lawsuit that became a flashpoint in the debate in the United States over tort reform. 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 (82–88 °C) McDonald's coffee was defective, claiming it was too hot and more likely to cause serious injury than coffee served at any other establishment. McDonald's had refused several prior opportunities to settle for less than what the jury ultimately awarded.[2] The jury damages included $160,000[3] to cover medical expenses and compensatory damages 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;[4] ABC News called the case "the poster child of excessive lawsuits",[5] while the legal scholar Jonathan Turley argued that the claim was "a meaningful and worthy lawsuit".[6] In June 2011, HBO premiered Hot Coffee, a documentary that discussed in depth how the Liebeck case has centered in debates on tort reform.[7][8]

Background[edit]

Burn incident[edit]

On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, ordered a 49-cent cup of coffee from the drive-through window of a local McDonald's restaurant located at 5001 Gibson Boulevard Southeast. 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 Liebeck 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.[9] Liebeck was wearing cotton sweatpants; they absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin, scalding her thighs, buttocks, and groin.[10]

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.[11] She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent skin grafting. During this period, Liebeck lost 20 pounds (9 kg, nearly 20% of her body weight), reducing her to 83 pounds (38 kg). Liebeck suffered permanent disfigurement after the incident and was partially disabled for up to two years afterwards.[12][13]

Pre-trial[edit]

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.[14] Instead, the company offered only $800. When McDonald's refused to raise its offer, Liebeck retained Texas attorney Reed Morgan. Morgan filed suit in New Mexico District Court accusing McDonald's of "gross negligence" for selling coffee that was "unreasonably dangerous" and "defectively manufactured". McDonald's refused Morgan's offer to settle for $90,000. Morgan offered to settle for $300,000, and a mediator suggested $225,000 just before trial, but McDonald's refused these final pre-trial attempts to settle.[2]

Trial and verdict[edit]

The trial took place from August 8–17, 1994, before New Mexico District Court Judge Robert H. Scott.[15] During the case, Liebeck's attorneys discovered that McDonald's required franchisees to hold coffee at 180–190 °F (82–88 °C). At 190 °F (88 °C), the coffee would cause a third-degree burn in two to seven seconds. Liebeck's attorney argued that coffee should never be served hotter than 140 °F (60 °C), and that a number of other establishments served coffee at a substantially lower temperature than McDonald's. Liebeck's lawyers presented the jury with evidence that 180 °F (82 °C) coffee like that McDonald’s served may produce third-degree burns (where skin grafting is necessary) in about 12 to 15 seconds. Lowering the temperature to 160 °F (71 °C) would increase the time for the coffee to produce such a burn 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.[2] However, the company's own research showed that some customers intend to consume the coffee immediately while driving.[3]

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.[2] 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 (54 °C) 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.[16]

A twelve-person jury reached its verdict on August 18, 1994.[15] 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.[2] 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 in December 1994, but the parties settled out of court for an undisclosed amount less than $600,000.[17]

Aftermath[edit]

The case is considered by some to be an example of frivolous litigation.[4] ABC News called the case "the poster child of excessive lawsuits".[5] Jonathan Turley called the case "a meaningful and worthy lawsuit".[6] 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.[18][19][20] They also argued that the coffee was not defective because McDonald's coffee conformed to industry standards,[2] and coffee continues to be served as hot or hotter today at McDonald's and chains like Starbucks.[21] They further stated that the vast majority of judges who consider similar cases dismiss them before they get to a jury.[22] 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".

Similar lawsuits[edit]

In McMahon v. Bunn Matic Corporation (1998), Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote a unanimous opinion affirming dismissal of a similar lawsuit against coffeemaker manufacturer Bunn-O-Matic, finding that 179 °F (82 °C) hot coffee was not "unreasonably dangerous".[23]

In Bogle v. McDonald’s Restaurants Ltd. (2002), a similar lawsuit in England failed when the court rejected the claim that McDonald's could have avoided injury by serving coffee at a lower temperature.[24]

Since Liebeck, major vendors of coffee, including Chick-Fil-A,[25] Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, Wendy's, Burger King,[26] hospitals,[27] and McDonald's[28] have been defendants in similar lawsuits over coffee-related burns. The courts in these lawsuits did not find hot coffee unreasonably dangerous or defectively manufactured.[citation needed]

Coffee temperature[edit]

In 1994, a spokesman for the National Coffee Association said that the temperature of McDonald's coffee conformed to industry standards.[2] An "admittedly unscientific" survey by the LA Times that year found that coffee was served between 157 and 182 °F, and that two locations tested served hotter coffee than McDonald's.[29]

Since Liebeck, McDonald's has not reduced the service temperature of its coffee. McDonald's policy today is to serve coffee between 80–90 °C (176–194 °F),[30] 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.[30][31] 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.[32] Similarly, as of 2004, Starbucks sells coffee at 175–185 °F (79–85 °C), and the executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America reported that the standard serving temperature is 160–185 °F (71–85 °C). Retailers today sell coffee as hot or hotter than the coffee that burned Stella Liebeck.

Hot Coffee documentary[edit]

On June 27, 2011, HBO premiered a documentary about tort reform problems titled Hot Coffee.[33] 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.[7] It argued that corporations have spent millions distorting certain tort cases in order to promote tort reform.[8]

The New York Times Retro Report[edit]

On October 21, 2013, The New York Times published a Retro Report video about the media reaction and an accompanying article about the changes in coffee drinking over 20 years.[34][35] The New York Times noted how the details of Liebeck's story lost length and context as it was reported worldwide.[34] The video included clips of news coverage, talk show bits, and references in Seinfeld, Futurama, and the Toby Keith song, "American Ride".[34] An October 25 follow-up article noted that the video had more than one million views and had sparked vigorous debate in the online comments.[36]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, P.T.S., Inc., No. D-202 CV-93-02419, 1995 WL 360309 (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. August 18, 1994), docket entry from nmcourts.com
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Andrea Gerlin, Wall Street Journal, "A Matter of Degree: How a Jury Decided that a Coffee Spill is Worth $2.9 Million", September 1, 1994, p. A1, available from http://www.business.txstate.edu/users/ds26/Business%20Law%202361/Misc/McDonalds%20coffee.pdf txstate.edu]
  3. ^ a b "The Actual Facts About – The Mcdonalds' Coffee Case"
  4. ^ a b Mark B. Greenlee, "Kramer v. Java World: Images, Issues, and Idols in the Debate Over Tort Reform", 26 Cap. U.L. Rev. 701
  5. ^ a b ABC News, "I'm Being Sued for What?", 2 May 2007
  6. ^ a b Legal Urban Legends Hold Sway
  7. ^ a b Doroshow, Joanne (June 26, 2011). "Watch Hot Coffee, a Powerful New Film on HBO June 27". Huffington Post. Retrieved 28 June 2011. 
  8. ^ a b Schmerler, Jessica (December 5, 2011). "Frivolous Lawsuits and How We Perceive Them". Yale Journal of Medicine and Law VIII (1). Retrieved 5 June 2013. 
  9. ^ Michael McCann, William Haltom, and Anne Bloom, "LAW & SOCIETY SYMPOSIUM: Java Jive: Genealogy of a Juridical Icon", 56 U. Miami L. Rev. 113 (October 2001), which describes the accident in detail
  10. ^ See Gerlin. See also Ralph Nader & Wesley J. Smith, No Contest: Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America (1996) ISBN 0-375-75258-7, 268
  11. ^ Nader & Smith, No Contest, 268
  12. ^ Kirsty Horsey; Erika Rackley (18 July 2013). Tort Law. Oxford University Press. pp. 356–. ISBN 978-0-19-966189-3. 
  13. ^ William Haltom; Michael McCann (15 November 2009). Distorting the Law: Politics, Media, and the Litigation Crisis. University of Chicago Press. pp. 186–. ISBN 978-0-226-31469-3. 
  14. ^ Amended Complaint for Damages, Stella LIEBECK, Plaintiff, v. MCDONALD'S RESTAURANTS, P.T.S, Inc. and McDonald's Corporation, Defendants. 1993 WL 13651163, District Court of New Mexico, (Bernalililo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. October 5, 1993)
  15. ^ a b Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, docket entry from nmcourts.com: :"08/18/1994 NCJ: JURY TRIAL 12 PERSON::Filing Judgment entered solely against DF McDonald's and to PL for compensatory damages of $160,000.00 and punitive damages of 0$2,700,000.00plus interest and costs
  16. ^ See Gerlin. See also trial and deposition transcripts reproduced in Nader & Smith, 270–272
  17. ^ Daniel J. Shapiro, Punitive Damages, 43 La. B.J. 252, 254 n.1 (1995)
  18. ^ Stephen Bainbridge (2004-08-01). "Trial lawyer propaganda at kos" (revised relocated blog entry). Retrieved 2008-05-14. )
  19. ^ Anthony J. Sebok, Dispatches from the Tort Wars: A Review Essay, 85 Tex. L. Rev. 1465, 1509–10.
  20. ^ Ted Frank, "Urban legends and Stella Liebeck and the McDonald's coffee case", Overlawyered.com, 20 October 2005
  21. ^ Matt Fleischer-Black (2004-06-04). "One Lump or Two? Infamous coffee-burn case – which inspired both caricature and quiet reform – about to get a 10th-anniversary rerun.". The American Lawyer. ALM Media, Inc. Retrieved 2008-05-13. "Ted Lingle, the executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America [said] ‘the answer is in more secure packaging.’" 
  22. ^ See, e.g., McMahon v. Bunn-O-Matic, 150 F.3d 651, 654 (7th Cir. 1998)(listing cases).
  23. ^ Judge Easterbrook: "The smell (and therefore the taste) of coffee depends heavily on the oils containing aromatic compounds that are dissolved out of the beans during the brewing process. Brewing temperature should be close to 200 °F [93 °C] to dissolve them effectively, but without causing the premature breakdown of these delicate molecules. Coffee smells and tastes best when these aromatic compounds evaporate from the surface of the coffee as it is being drunk. Compounds vital to flavor have boiling points in the range of 150–160 °F [66–71 °C], and the beverage therefore tastes best when it is this hot and the aromatics vaporize as it is being drunk. For coffee to be 150 °F when imbibed, it must be hotter in the pot. Pouring a liquid increases its surface area and cools it; more heat is lost by contact with the cooler container; if the consumer adds cream and sugar (plus a metal spoon to stir them) the liquid's temperature falls again. If the consumer carries the container out for later consumption, the beverage cools still further." McMahon v. Bunn Matic Corporation, 150 F.3d 651 (7th Cir. 1997)
  24. ^ Judge Field of the Queen's Bench wrote: "If this submission be right, McDonald's should not have served drinks at any temperature which would have caused a bad scalding injury. The evidence is that tea or coffee served at a temperature of 65 °C [149 °F] will cause a deep thickness burn if it is in contact with the skin for just two seconds. Thus, if McDonald’s were going to avoid the risk of injury by a deep thickness burn they would have had to have served tea and coffee at between 55 °C and 60 °C. [131–140 °F] But tea ought to be brewed with boiling water if it is to give its best flavour and coffee ought to be brewed at between 85 °C and 95 °C. [185–203 °F] Further, people generally like to allow a hot drink to cool to the temperature they prefer. Accordingly, I have no doubt that tea and coffee served at between 55 °C and 60 °C would not have been acceptable to McDonald's customers. Indeed, on the evidence, I find that the public want to be able to buy tea and coffee served hot, that is to say at a temperature of at least 65 °C, even though they know (as I think they must be taken to do for the purposes of answering issues (1) and (2)) that there is a risk of a scalding injury if the drink is spilled." Bogle & Ors v McDonald’s Restaurants Ltd. [2002] EWHC 490, at 33
  25. ^ Hurtado, Linda (2011-02-12). "Local woman sues National Franchise over coffee". ABC Action News (The E.W. Scripps Co.). Retrieved 2013-03-22. 
  26. ^ "Burned woman sues Burger King". 3 News NZ. January 10, 2012. 
  27. ^ O'Brien, John (2006-06-06). "Woman’s estate sues over hot coffee". The West Virginia Record (Madison County Record, Inc). Retrieved 2013-03-22. 
  28. ^ Behme, Todd J. (March 23, 2012). "McDonald's hit with 2 hot-coffee lawsuits". Crain's Chicago Business. Retrieved 2013-04-21. 
  29. ^ Denise Gellene (1994-09-16). "A Hot Tip for Coffee Lovers: Most Retailers Prefer to Make It Scalding". Los Angeles Times. 
  30. ^ a b "Burger chain sued after boy's ordeal". Cambridge News. Cambridge Newspapers Ltd, Cambridge UK. 2007-06-22. Retrieved 2008-05-14. "Matthew Allen, 10, suffered second degree burns after he bumped into his mum's tray and the drink tipped on to his arm. ... He saw a plastic surgeon because it was feared he would need a skin graft. ... McDonald's says its black coffee should be served at 85 °C, plus or minus five degrees." 
  31. ^ Greenlee, 26 Cap. U.L. Rev. 701, 724
  32. ^ Greenlee, 26 Cap. U.L. Rev. 701, 724 (citing Lesly Pogerew v. Brothers Gourmet Coffees Inc., No. 96-CV-93848 (Denver Co., Dist. Ct., CO November 19, 1997)).
  33. ^ Hot Coffee (2011) at the Internet Movie Database
  34. ^ a b c "Scalded by Coffee, Then News Media". Retro Report. The New York Times. October 21, 2013. Retrieved October 26, 2013. 
  35. ^ Stout, Hilary (October 21, 2013). "Not Just a Hot Cup Anymore". Retro Report. The New York Times. Retrieved October 26, 2013. 
  36. ^ Bertram, Bonnie (October 25, 2013). "Storm Still Brews Over Scalding Coffee". Retro Report. The New York Times. Retrieved October 26, 2013. 

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