I heard someone discussing the McDonald’s hot coffee case the other day, and like most folks, the speaker knew nothing about the real facts of that case.
Regardless, this case still impacts the debate about reform of our civil justice system (i.e., tort reform). A new documentary, Hot Coffee, to be released in 2011 explores how the case has been misrepresented to advance the anti-civil justice agenda of big business, including the health care lobby. I thought this was a good time to help spread the truth about the facts of this case.
In 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79 year old woman, was in the passenger seat as her grandson drove through the drive-thru window of a local McDonald’s. She purchased a 49 cent cup of coffee. After getting their order, the grandson pulled the car over in the parking lot and stopped so that Ms. Liebeck could put cream and sugar in her coffee. Ms. Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and as she attempted to remove the lid from the styrofoam cup, scalding hot coffee spilled into her lap.
Ms. Liebeck was wearing sweatpants, which absorbed the coffee and held it next to her skin. The coffee immediately began to burn her inner thighs, buttocks as well as her genital and groin areas. She was taken to the hospital, where she remained for eight days. While hospitalized, Ms. Liebeck underwent skin grafting and debridement procedures. A vascular surgeon determined that Ms. Liebeck suffered third-degree burns over 6 percent of her body. She suffered greatly from her injuries and incurred thousands of dollars worth of medical bills.
She approached McDonald’s about paying her medical expenses. She asked for $20,000, but McDonalds refused. So, Ms. Liebeck filed a lawsuit alleging that the coffee served to her was dangerously hot. The question is how hot is too hot, and whether a consumer should know that coffee is so hot that if you spill it that it can cause third-degree burns. Of course, not all coffee is served so hot.
During the litigation, McDonalds produced documents which revealed that between 1982 and 1992 more than 700 people were burned by coffee served at its restaurants. Some of the claims involved third-degree burns. Why keep coffee so hot? Because, it taste better hot. However, a McDonalds’ quality assurance manager testified that food served at 140 degrees was a burn hazard; he also testified that coffee served at 180 degrees or hotter was not fit for consumption.
So again, why keep coffee so hot? McDonald’s had hired consultants to answer this question. The coffee experts had recommended that McDonald hold its coffee between 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit. However, no one considered whether coffee served at such temperatures put its customers at risk: Accidents happen. Spilling coffee was an accident; serving coffee at dangerous temperatures was not.
Ms. Liebecks’s lawyer hired an expert, who was a scholar in thermodynamics applied to human skin burns. He testified that a 180 degree liquid will cause third-degree burns to human skin in 2 to 7 seconds. This would seem to leave no margin for accidents: Accidents happens. There was evidence that if the coffee had been served at 155 degrees, Ms. Liebeck would have not suffered any serious injuries at all.
Twelve local law-abiding citizens listened to all the evidence presented by both sides and then awarded Ms. Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages, which equaled about two days of McDonalds’ coffee sales. However, because the jury found that Ms. Liebeck was 20% at fault, her compensatory damages were reduced to $160,000. In addition, the judge reduced the punitive award to $480,000, although he ruled that McDonalds’ conduct was reckless.
So, what are the take-aways from this 16 year old case? First, accidents happen, and there is no reason that someone who accidently spills coffee must risk third-degree burns. Second, the facts of the case are much different than the hype. Ms. Liebeck did not get millions of dollars. The injuries were serious. The coffee was not just hot, but it was f*#@*&g hot? Remember there is an agenda behind all half-truths.
Third, even if you disagree with the result, this case is hardly an example of a runaway tort system. Does this case justify the effort to limit our 7th Amendment right to trial by jury? Our civil justice system is not perfect, but the trial by jury works many more times than it doesn’t. And even so, the right to a trial by jury is a constitutional right, no less so than the right to bear arms or free speech.
How many people want caps on jail time for murderers or child molesters because an innocent person is falsely convicted? Our criminal justice system is not perfect, but we know that for every mistake, there are at least a hundred successes. And, the solution is to make sure that innocent folks are not convicted and not to cap the sentences of the guilty. And, so it is with our civil justice system.
Our civil justice system is the great equalizer: Juries are the most democratic institution in our constitutional republic. Before you limit the constitutional right to a trial by jury, you owe it to yourself and your fellow citizens to know the facts!