As an injury attorney, all too often I am confronted by friends, clients and others with the skepticism of “that lady who got $10 Million from McDonalds because her coffee was too hot.” As a Seinfeld fan, I am reminded about the episode where Kramer suffered a similar fate when he spilled a latte on his lap while trying to sneak it in to a movie theater. The Seinfeld writers made a mockery of the now infamous McDonald’s Coffee case through their portrayal of the character Jackie Chiles who served as Kramer’s attorney against the latte company. (Kramer was not able to settle for “millions” to Mr. Chile’s dismay, but he was successful in obtaining a lifetime supply of lattes even though a balm he applied had healed all the wounds).
In the McDonald’s case, a 79 year-old woman (Mrs. Liebeck) burned herself with a $0.49 cup of hot McDonald’s coffee. She had taken the lid off the cup to add cream and sugar after buying the coffee at the drive-through window in Arizona. The cup slipped and scalding hot coffee fell into her lap. A jury awarded Mrs Liebeck. about $3 million, largely consisting of punitive damages. The damages were subsequently reduced by a judge and the case later settled out of court. The dispute launched Mrs. Liebeck and the case into the national spotlight far beyond Jackie Chiles and Kramer, as a symbol of a severely flawed tort system. McDonalds and other similarly situation large corporations, used the case as poster child for legislation capping damages and further limiting personal injury cases.
But few really understood (and continue to misunderstand) the facts of the case.
The jury heard evidence that McDonald’s knew that their newly designed coffee machines would produce coffee that was “unfit for human consumption” at the time the coffee was brewed, but the company did nothing to make sure that employees waited the appropriate cooling off time before serving it. The machines were designed to produce a coffee temperature that was so hot that it would remain hot by the time the customer arrived to work. McDonald’s instructed its workers to brew the coffee at 195-200 degrees Fahrenheit and serve the coffee at a temperature of over 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Traditionally, “hot coffee” is served at around 160 degrees Fahrenheit. An expert at the trial testifying on behalf of Mrs. Liebeck explained that lowering the serving temperature to about 160 degrees could make a big difference, because it takes less than three seconds to produce a third-degree burn at 190 degrees, about 12 to 15 seconds at 180 degrees and about 20 seconds at 160 degrees.
The jury saw graphic photographs of the devastating injuries the scalding coffee caused to Ms. Liebeck. She needed several surgeries including skin grafts to her inner thigh and vagina wall.
It should also be noted that the jury found that that Ms. Liebeck was 20% responsible for the way she handled the cup, so it did not leave her off the hook for part of the blame. It awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages, which frankly is not a huge amount for the injuries she sustained. I am unsure what the total value of her bills were as a result of the burns, grafting, etc., but $200,000.00 does not seem otherworldly to me.
As the jury went on to consider punitive damages, it had to consider what amount of money would be sufficient to punish McDonald’s for ignoring the safety of their consumers. What amount of “punishment” would cause them to alter their business practice? After all, they consciously and intentionally served their product at a temperature that they knew was too hot for consumption. McDonalds assumed that risk by exposing drive through customers to the potential harm. McDonald’s executives at trial came off as very callous and seemed to downplay the seriousness of the injuries. Evidence showed that in the past decade before the trial, McDonald’s had received more than 700 reports of coffee burns ranging from mild to third degree, and had settled claims arising from scalding injuries for more than $500,000. At trial, Ms. Liebeck testified that she offered to settle this case shortly after the incident had occurred if McDonalds would have paid her medical bills. Christopher Appleton, a McDonald’s quality assurance executive, testified that McDonald’s knew its coffee sometimes caused serious burns, but had not consulted burn experts about it, and that despite their knowledge, McDonalds had decided not to warn customers about the possibility of severe burns. He was confronted with testimony from an earlier case, where he said he was “aware of the risk [of injury] but had no plans to turn down the heat.” Finally, he testified that McDonald’s did not intend to change any of its coffee policies or procedures, saying, “There are more serious dangers in restaurants.” As a result, the jury decided to award $2.6 Million in punitive damages, because they heard proof that McDonald’s sold $1.3 million of coffee every day and knew that 2 days of coffee sales would send a message but hardly bankrupt the company.