From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, a.k.a. the "McDonald's coffee case", is a well-known product liability lawsuit that became a flashpoint in the debate in the U.S. over tort reform after a jury awarded $2.9 million to a woman who burned herself with hot coffee. The trial judge reduced the total award to $640,000, and the parties settled for a confidential amount before an appeal was decided. The case entered popular understanding as an example of frivolous litigation.
Others, especially opponents of tort reform, argue that Liebeck's recovery was just. They argue that the popular understanding of the case omits significant and relevant information. Liebeck's attorneys argued that McDonald's coffee was "defective", claiming that it was hotter and more likely to cause serious injury than coffee served elsewhere. Moreover, McDonalds had refused several prior opportunities to settle for less than the $640,000 ultimately awarded. Reformers defend the popular understanding of the case as materially accurate; note that the vast majority of judges to consider similar cases dismiss them before they get to a jury; and argue that McDonald's refusal to offer more than a nuisance settlement reflects the meritless nature of the suit rather than any wrongdoing.
 Background of the case
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-thru of a local McDonald's restaurant. Liebeck was in the passenger's seat of her Ford Probe, and her grandson Chris parked the car so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. She 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.
Liebeck was wearing cotton sweatpants; they absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin as she sat in the puddle of hot liquid for over 90 seconds, 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. Two years of treatment followed.
 Attempts to settle
Liebeck sought to settle with McDonald's for US$20,000 to cover her medical costs, which were $11,000, but the company offered only $800. When McDonald's refused to raise its offer, Liebeck obtained Texas attorney Reed Morgan. Morgan filed suit in a 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.
McDonald's refused to settle perhaps because, though there had been numerous lawsuits alleging that hot coffee was "defectively manufactured," courts had consistently dismissed the cases before trial on the grounds that coffee burns were an open and obvious danger.
 Evidence presented to the jury
During the case, Liebeck's attorney's discovered that McDonald's required franchises to serve coffee at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit (82-88 degrees Celsius). At that temperature, the coffee would cause a third-degree burn in two to seven seconds. Stella Liebeck's attorney argued that coffee should never be served hotter than 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius), 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 degree coffee like that McDonald’s served may produce third-degree burns (where skin grafting is necessary) in about 12 to 15 seconds (as a reference, the boiling point of water is 212 degrees Fahrenheit). Lowering the temperature to 160 degrees Fahrenheit would increase the time for the coffee to produce such a burn to 20 seconds. (A British court later rejected this argument as scientifically false.) 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 reason for serving such hot coffee in its drive-through windows was that, because those who purchased the coffee typically wanted to drive a distance with the coffee, the high initial temperature would keep the coffee hot during the trip.
Other documents obtained from McDonald's showed that from 1982 to 1992 the company had received more than 700 reports of people burnt by McDonald's coffee to varying degrees of severity, and had settled claims arising from scalding injuries for more than $500,000. This represents about one complaint per 24 million cups of coffee sold by McDonald's.
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 degrees 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.
 Verdict and settlement
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 in December 1994, but the parties settled out of court for an undisclosed amount less than $600,000.
 Other coffee burn cases
Similar lawsuits against McDonald's in the United Kingdom failed. The High Court of Justice, Queen's Bench Division, rejected the claim that McDonald's could have avoided injury by serving not-so-hot coffee:
- 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 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. 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 °F and 203 °F].
Though defenders of the Liebeck verdict argue that her coffee was unusually hotter than other coffee sold, other major vendors of coffee, including Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, Wendy's, and Burger King, produce coffee at a similar or higher temperature, and have been subjected to similar lawsuits over third-degree burns.
Home and commercial coffee makers often reach comparable temperatures. The National Coffee Association instructs that coffee be brewed "between 195-205 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal extraction" and consumed "immediately". If not consumed immediately, the coffee is to be "maintained at 180-185 degrees Fahrenheit." 
Although Liebeck's attorney claimed that McDonald's reduced the temperature of their coffee after the suit, he has since brought other lawsuits against McDonald's over hot-coffee burns; McDonald's apparently now serves coffee close to 180 degrees, relying on more sternly-worded warnings 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.
Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote a unanimous 7th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion affirming dismissal of a similar lawsuit against coffeemaker manufacturer Bunn-O-Matic. The opinion noted that hot coffee (179 °F or 82 C in this case) is not "unreasonably dangerous.":
- 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 degrees F 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 degrees F to 160 degrees F, 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 degrees 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.
 In popular culture
- The song "Kids Love McDonald's," played numerous times on The Dr. Demento Show, contains the lyric "Kids love McDonald's./They sing and they clap/When the old lady spills/Hot coffee in her lap."
- This case was spoofed in the TV show episode of Seinfeld, The Maestro, as well. Represented by Jackie Chiles, Cosmo Kramer sues the fictional Java World coffee chain and wins a lifetime of free coffee; he had burned himself by climbing over the legs of another patron in the movie theater while storing a cafe latte in his pants. The episode recalls the popular image of the "McDonald's coffee case" and conveys negative attitudes about the legal system. 
- The Stella Awards, created by Randy Cassingham, is an award given to frivolous lawsuits (to invoke thought about tort reform.) The name is taken from Liebeck and the case features prominently in the award, as it inspired Cassingham to create the award. However, he argues that "much of the coverage" on Liebeck itself is "grossly unfair" (though doesn't identify any actual unfairness) and uses the term "Stella Awards" for name recognition.
 See also
- ^ Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, P.T.S., Inc., No. D-202 CV-93-02419, 1995 WL 360309 (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. Aug. 18, 1994) details from nmcourts.com
- ^ 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
- ^ a b c d e f Andrea Gerlin, Wall Street Journal, "A Matter of Degree: How a Jury Decided That a Coffee Spill Is Worth $2.9 Million," Sept. 1, 1994, p. A1, available from Reed Morgan's website
- ^ a b c Ted Frank, "Urban legends and Stella Liebeck and the McDonald's coffee case", Overlawyered.com, 20 October 2005
- ^ These sentiments are echoed by Stephen Bainbridge on his blog, among others
- ^ 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
- ^ See Gerlin. See also Ralph Nader & Wesley J. Smith, No Contest: Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America (1996) ISBN 0375752587, 268
- ^ Nader & Smith, 268
- ^ a b Ted Frank, "British hot coffee: Bogle v. McDonald's", Overlawyered.com, 20 Sep 2006
- ^ See Gerlin. See also trial and deposition transcripts reproduced in Nader & Smith, 270-272
- ^ Daniel J. Shapiro, Punitive Damages, 43 La. B.J. 252, 254 n.1 (1995)
- ^ Ted Frank, "Latest hot coffee lawsuit data points", Overlawyered.com, 28 October 2006
- ^ For example, Bunn  mentions "the ideal brewing temperature of approximately 200°", and  mentions "water at 200° Fahrenheit (the ideal temperature)". Cuisinart mentions for at least one of their coffeemakers  that "After brewing, the heater plate will keep the coffee at about 180°-185°F".
- ^ Specifications from ncausa.org
- ^ Matt Fleisher-Black, "One Lump or Two?", The American Lawyer (June 2004)
- ^ Greenlee, 26 Cap. U.L. Rev. 701, 724
- ^ Id., which cites Lesly Pogerew v. Brothers Gourmet Coffees Inc., No. 96-CV-93848 (Denver Co., Dist. Ct., CO Nov. 19, 1997)
- ^ McMahon v. Bunn-O-Matic Corp., 150 F.3d 651 (7th Cir. 1997)
- ^ The Real Stella's Case, from the True Stella Awards
 External links