Think you know the story about the "outrageous" McDonald's coffee
Did you know. . .
Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was in the passenter seat of her grandson's car when
she was severely burned by McDonald's coffee in 1992. Liebeck, 72 at the time, ordered coffee that
was served in a styrofoam cup at the drivethrough window of a local McDonalds.
After receiving the order, the grandson pulled his car forward and stopped momentarily so that
Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. (Critics of civil justice, who have pounced on this
case, often charge that Liebeck was driving the car or that the vehicle was in motion when she
spilled the coffee; neither is true.) Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and attempted to
remove the plastic lid from the cup. As she removed the lid, the entire contents of the cup spilled
into her lap.
The sweatpants Liebeck was wearing absorbed the coffee and held it next to her skin. A vascular
surgeon determined that Liebeck suffered full thickness burns (or third-degree burns) over 6
percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas.
She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting. Liebeck, who
also underwent debridement treatments, sought to settle her claim for $20,000, but McDonalds
During discovery, McDonalds produced documents showing more than 700 claims by
people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some claims involved third-degree burns
substantially similar to Liebecks. This history documented McDonalds' knowledge about the
extent and nature of this hazard.
McDonalds also said during discovery that, based on a consultants advice, it held its coffee at
between 180 and 190 degrees fahrenheit to maintain optimum taste. He admitted that he had not
evaluated the safety ramifications at this temperature. Other establishments sell coffee at
substantially lower temperatures, and coffee served at home is generally 135 to 140 degrees.
Further, McDonalds' quality assurance manager testified that the company actively
enforces a requirement that coffee be held in the pot at 185 degrees, plus or minus five degrees. He
also testified that a burn hazard exists with any food substance served at 140 degrees or above, and
that McDonalds coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into styrofoam cups, was not fit
for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat. The quality assurance manager
admitted that burns would occur, but testified that McDonalds had no intention of reducing the
"holding temperature" of its coffee.
Plaintiffs' expert, a scholar in thermodynamics applied to human skin burns, testified that liquids,
at 180 degrees, will cause a full thickness burn to human skin in two to seven seconds. Other
testimony showed that as the temperature decreases toward 155 degrees, the extent of the burn
relative to that temperature decreases exponentially. Thus, if Liebeck's spill had involved coffee at
155 degrees, the liquid would have cooled and given her time to avoid a serious burn.
McDonalds asserted that customers buy coffee on their way to work or home,intending to consume
it there. However, the companys own research showed that customers intend to consume the coffee
immediately while driving.
McDonalds also argued that consumers know coffee is hot and that its customers want it that way.
The company admitted its customers were unaware that they could suffer third degree burns from
the coffee and that a statement on the side of the cup was not a "warning" but a "reminder" since
the location of the writing would not warn customers of the hazard.
The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. This amount was reduced to
$160,000 because the jury found Liebeck 20 percent at fault in the spill. The jury also awarded
Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which equals about two days of McDonalds' coffee sales.
Post-verdict investigation found that the temperature of coffee at the local Albuquerque
McDonalds had dropped to 158 degrees fahrenheit.
The trial court subsequently reduced the punitive award to $480,000 -- or three times
compensatory damages -- even though the judge called McDonalds' conduct reckless,
callous and willful.
No one will ever know the final ending to this case.
The parties eventually entered into a secret settlement which has never been revealed to the public,
despite the fact that this was a public case, litigated in public and subjected to extensive media
reporting. Such secret settlements, after public trials, should not be condoned.
|"No man is
above the law,
and no man is
below it. Nor do
we require any
we require him
to obey it."
|excerpted from ATLA fact sheet. ©1995, 1996 by Consumer Attorneys of California
|The Actual Facts About the McDonald's Hot Coffee Case
by Andrea Gerlin
September 1, 1994
The Wall Street Journal
© 1994, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.-When a law firm here found itself defending McDonald's Corp. in a suit last year that claimed the company served
dangerously hot coffee, it hired a law student to take temperatures at other local restaurants for comparison.
After dutifully slipping a thermometer into steaming cups and mugs all over the city, Danny Jarrett found that none came closer than about 20
degrees to the temperature at which McDonald's coffee is poured, about 180 degrees.
It should have been a warning.
But McDonald's lawyers went on to dismiss several opportunities to settle out of court, apparently convinced that no jury would punish a
company for serving coffee the way customers like it. After all, its coffee's temperature helps explain why McDonald's sells a billion cups a year.
But now - days after a jury here awarded $2.9 million to an 81-year-old woman scalded by McDonald's coffee-some observers say the defense
was naïve. "I drink McDonald's coffee because it's hot, the hottest coffee around," says Robert Gregg, a Dallas defense attorney who consumes
it during morning drives to the office. "But I've predicted for years that someone's going to win a suit, because I've spilled it on myself. And unlike
the coffee I make at home, it's really hot. I mean, man, it hurts."
McDonald's, known for its fastidious control over franchisees, requires that its coffee be prepared at very high temperatures, based on
recommendations of coffee consultants and industry groups that say hot temperatures are necessary to fully extract the flavor during brewing.
Before trial, McDonald's gave the opposing lawyer its operations and training manual, which says its coffee must be brewed at 195 to 205
degrees and held at 180 to 190 degrees for optimal taste. Since the verdict, McDonald's has declined to offer any comment, as have their
attorneys. It is unclear if the company, whose coffee cups warn drinkers that the contents are hot, plans to change its preparation procedures.
Coffee temperature is suddenly a hot topic in the industry. The Specialty Coffee Association of America has put coffee safety on the agenda of
its quarterly board meeting this month. And a spokesman for Dunkin' Donuts Inc., which sells about 500 million cups of coffee a year, says the
company is looking at the verdict to see if it needs to make any changes to the way it makes coffee.
Others call it a tempest in a coffeepot. A spokesman for the National Coffee Association says McDonald's coffee conforms to industry
temperature standards. And a spokesman for Mr. Coffee Inc., the coffee-machine maker, says that if customer complaints are any indication,
industry settings may be too low-some customers like it hotter. A spokeswoman for Starbucks Coffee Co. adds, "Coffee is traditionally a hot
beverage and is served hot and I would hope that this is an isolated incident."
Coffee connoisseur William McAlpin, an importer and wholesaler in Bar Harbor, Maine, who owns a coffee plantation in Costa Rica, says 175
degrees is "probably the optimum temperature, because that's when aromatics are being released. Once the aromas get in your palate, that is a
large part of what makes the coffee a pleasure to drink."
Public opinion is squarely on the side of McDonald's. Polls have shown a large majority of Americans-including many who typically support the
little guy-to be outraged at the verdict. And radio talk-show hosts around the country have lambasted the plaintiff, her attorneys and the jurors on
air. Declining to be interviewed for this story, one juror explained that he already had received angry calls from citizens around the country.
It's a reaction that many of the jurors could have understood-before they heard the evidence. At the beginning of the trial, jury foreman Jerry
Goens says he "wasn't convinced as to why I needed to be there to settle a coffee spill."
At that point, Mr. Goens and the other jurors knew only the basic facts: that two years earlier, Stella Liebeck had bought a 49-cent cup of coffee
at the drive-in window of an Albuquerque McDonald's, and while removing the lid to add cream and sugar had spilled it, causing third-degree
burns of the groin, inner thighs and buttocks. Her suit, filed in state court in Albuquerque, claimed the coffee was "defective" because it was so
What the jury didn't realize initially was the severity of her burns. Told during the trial of Mrs. Liebeck's seven days in the hospital and her skin
grafts, and shown gruesome photographs, jurors began taking the matter more seriously. "It made me come home and tell my wife and
daughters don't drink coffee in the car, at least not hot," says juror Jack Elliott.
Even more eye-opening was the revelation that McDonald's had seen such injuries many times before. Company documents showed that in the
past decade McDonald's had received at least 700 reports of coffee burns ranging from mild to third degree, and had settled claims arising from
scalding injuries for more than $500,000.
Some observers wonder why McDonald's, after years of settling coffee-burn cases, chose to take this one to trial. After all, the plaintiff was a
sympathetic figure-an articulate, 81-year-old former department store clerk who said under oath that she had never filed suit before. In fact, she
said, she never would have filed this one if McDonald's hadn't dismissed her requests for compensation for pain and medical bills with an offer
Then there was the matter of Mrs. Liebeck's attorney. While recuperating from her injuries in the Santa Fe home of her daughter, Mrs. Liebeck
happened to meet a pair of Texas transplants familiar with a Houston attorney who had handled a 1986 hot-coffee lawsuit against McDonald's.
His name was Reed Morgan, and ever since he had deeply believed that McDonald's coffee is too hot.
For that case, involving a Houston woman with third-degree burns, Mr. Morgan had the temperature of coffee taken at 18 restaurants such as
Dairy Queen, Wendy's and Dunkin' Donuts, and at 20 McDonald's restaurants. McDonald's, his investigator found, accounted for nine of the 12
hottest readings. Also for that case, Mr. Morgan deposed Christopher Appleton, a McDonald's quality assurance manager, who said "he was
aware of this risk… and had no plans to turn down the heat," according to Mr. Morgan. McDonald's settled that case for $27,500.
Now, plotting Mrs. Liebeck's case, Mr. Morgan planned to introduce photographs of his previous client's injuries and those of a California woman
who suffered second- and third-degree burns after a McDonald's employee spilled hot coffee into her vehicle in 1990, a case that was settled
out of court for $230,000.
Tracy McGee of Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin & Robb, the lawyers for McDonald's, strenuously objected. "First-person accounts by sundry
women whose nether regions have been scorched by McDonald's coffee might well be worthy of Oprah," she wrote in a motion to state court
Judge Robert Scott. "But they have no place in a court of law." Judge Scott did not allow the photographs nor the women's testimony into
evidence, but said Mr. Morgan could mention the cases.
As the trial date approached, McDonald's declined to settle. At one point, Mr. Morgan says he offered to drop the case for $300,000, and was
willing to accept half that amount.
But McDonald's didn't bite.
Only days before the trial, Judge Scott ordered both sides to attend a mediation session. The mediator, a retired judge, recommended that
McDonald's settle for $225,000, saying a jury would be likely to award that amount. The company didn't follow his recommendation.
Instead, McDonald's continued denying any liability for Mrs. Liebeck's burns. The company suggested that she may have contributed to her
injuries by holding the cup between her legs and not removing her clothing immediately. And it also argued that "Mrs. Liebeck's age may have
caused her injuries to have been worse than they might have been in a younger individual," since older skin is thinner and more vulnerable to
The trial lasted seven sometimes mind-numbing days. Experts dueled over the temperature at which coffee causes burns. A scientist testifying
for McDonald's argued that any coffee hotter than 130 degrees could produce third-degree burns, so it didn't matter whether Mc Donald's coffee
was hotter. But a doctor testifying on behalf of Mrs. Liebeck argued 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 testimony of Mr. Appleton, the McDonald's executive, didn't help the company, jurors said later. He testified that McDonald's knew its coffee
sometimes caused serious burns, but hadn't consulted burn experts about it. He also testified that McDonald's had decided not to warn
customers about the possibility of severe burns, even though most people wouldn't think it possible. Finally, he testified that McDonald's didn't
intend to change any of its coffee policies or procedures, saying, "There are more serious dangers in restaurants."
Mr. Elliott, the juror, says he began to realize that the case was about "callous disregard for the safety of the people."
Next for the defense came P. Robert Knaff, a human-factors engineer who earned $15,000 in fees from the case and who, several jurors said
later, didn't help McDonald's either. Dr. Knaff told the jury that hot-coffee burns were statistically insignificant when compared to the billion cups
of coffee McDonald's sells annually.
To jurors, Dr. Knaff seemed to be saying that the graphic photos they had seen of Mrs. Liebeck's burns didn't matter because they were rare.
"There was a person behind every number and I don't think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that," says juror Betty Farnham.
When the panel reached the jury room, it swiftly arrived at the conclusion that McDonald's was liable. "The facts were so overwhelmingly
against the company," says Ms. Farnham. "They were not taking care of their consumers."
Then the six men and six women decided on compensatory damages of $200,000, which they reduced to $160,000 after determining that 20% of
the fault belonged with Mrs. Liebeck for spilling the coffee.
The jury then found that McDonald's had engaged in willful, reckless, malicious or wanton conduct, the basis for punitive damages. Mr. Morgan
had suggested penalizing McDonald's the equivalent of one to two days of companywide coffee sales, which he estimated at $1.35 million a day.
During the four-hour deliberation, a few jurors unsuccessfully argued for as much as $9.6 million in punitive damages. But in the end, the jury
settled on $2.7 million.
McDonald's has since asked the judge for a new trial. Judge Scott has asked both sides to meet with a mediator to discuss settling the case
before he rules on McDonald's request. The judge also has the authority to disregard the jury's finding or decrease the amount of damages.
One day after the verdict, a local reporter tested the coffee at the McDonald's that had served Mrs. Liebeck and found it to be a comparatively
cool 158 degrees. But industry officials say they doubt that this signals any companywide change. After all, in a series of focus groups last year,
customers who buy McDonald's coffee at least weekly say that "morning coffee has minimal taste requirements, but must be hot," to the point
POSTSCRIPT - Following the trial of Ms. Liebeck's case, the judge who presided over it reduced the punitive damages award to $480,000, even
though the judge called McDonald's conduct reckless, callous and willful. This reduction is a corrective feature built into our legal system.
Furthermore, after that, both parties agreed to a settlement of the claim for a sum reported to be much less than the judge's reduced award.
Another corrective feature.
ADDITIONAL NOTE - Prior to the Liebeck case, the prestigious Shriner's Burn Institute in Cincinnati had published warnings to the franchise food
industry that its members were unnecessarily causing serious scald burns by serving beverages above 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
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