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The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case


It was the 1994 jury verdict that was used as a justification for twenty years of “tort reform”. Special interest groups used the McDonald’s hot coffee jury verdict to justify changes in our legal system — changes supposedly needed to stop “runaway juries”.  But was the McDonald’s jury really a “runaway jury”?  Did McDonald’s actually deserve to be punished?  It’s time to re-examine the facts behind the McDonald’s coffee case.

In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck bought a cup of takeout coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque and spilled it on her lap. She sued McDonald’s and a jury awarded her $200,000 for her injuries and assessed a punitive damages penalty of $2.4 million against McDonald’s.

Politicians and special interest groups insisted that the jury verdict was a sign that the sky was falling due to “runaway juries”.  They argued that the verdict made no sense because coffee is supposed to be hot, McDonald’s didn’t pour the coffee on her, and it was her fault because she was driving the car and wasn’t paying attention when she spilled it on herself.

The true facts of the case reveal something entirely different.  Here are just a few facts that were considered by the members of the jury but are not well-known to the American public:

Mrs. Liebeck was not driving when her coffee spilled.  She was the passenger in a car that was stopped in the parking lot of the McDonald’s where she bought the coffee. She held the cup between her knees while removing the lid to add cream and sugar.  The cup tipped over. The entire contents spilled onto her lap.

The coffee was not just “hot,” but scalding hot. McDonald’s corporate policy was to serve coffee at a temperature between 180 and 190 degrees.  That’s about 30 degrees hotter than the coffee we brew in our home coffee makers.  Coffee at 190 degrees can cause us third degree burns in about 3 seconds. Coffee at 160 degrees, the temperature used by most of our home coffee makers, takes 20 seconds to result in third degree burns.  If we spill coffee on ourselves at home, we have 20 seconds to wipe it off or to remove the wet clothing and thereby avoid serious injury.  At the 190 degrees used by McDonald’s, there is precious little time for a customer to remove soaked clothing before suffering serious burns.

Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries were far from frivolous. She was wearing sweatpants that absorbed the coffee and kept it against her skin. She suffered third-degree burns (the most serious kind) and required skin grafts on her inner thighs and her private parts.

Liebeck’s case was far from an isolated event. McDonald’s had received more than 700 previous reports of injury from its coffee, including reports of third-degree burns, and had paid settlements in some of those cases.

McDonalds stated that it used the higher temperatures to assure “the maximum extraction of flavor”.  In other words, a higher temperature means fewer coffee beans are needed per pot resulting in higher profits for the company.

Mrs. Liebeck offered to settle the case for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses and her lost income. McDonald’s never offered more than $800. The case had to be tried.

The jury found Mrs. Liebeck to be partially at fault for her injuries, reducing the $200,000 compensation for her injuries to $160,000.

The jury was upset that McDonald’s was unwilling to change its policy despite its knowledge that over 700 customers had been burned by its scalding hot coffee in the past.  The jury awarded Liebeck $2.4 million in punitive damages — the equivalent of two days’ worth of revenue from coffee sales for McDonald’s.  The judge reduced the award to $650,000 and the case later settled for under $500,000.

The Wall Street Journal carried a story about the case (pdf) shortly after the verdict.  One juror was quoted as saying that the case was about “callous disregard for the safety of the people.”   Another juror reacted to testimony by a McDonald’s expert witness who stated that the 700 burns suffered in their restaurants were “statistically insignificant” when compared to the number of cups of coffee McDonald’s sells annually.  The juror, Betty Farnham stated that “[t]here was a person behind every number and I don’t think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that.”

The jurors got to hear all the facts, both those presented by Ms. Liebeck and those presented by McDonald’s.  Those same jurors expressed outrage that ordinary consumers were exposed to serious injury so that McDonald’s could maximize its profits for every pot of coffee it sold.

Unfortunately, state legislators from around the country did not have all the facts.  All they knew was that some “runaway jury” awarded $2.9 million to a woman who spilled coffee on herself.  Based on that limited information, they have changed the civil justice system in our country in the past twenty years in ways that make it harder for consumers to hold corporations accountable.

It’s important for the true facts behind the McDonald’s hot coffee case to be understood, both by legislators and by consumers.  The jury system actually did its job in the McDonald’s case.  A company that was aware it was causing serious injuries to its customers chose to do nothing because it put profits over safety.  A jury of ordinary citizens told that company that its behavior was unacceptable.  The jury system is supposed to do that.  That’s why the founders of our country guaranteed the right to civil jury trials in the Seventh Amendment to our Constitution.

Politicians can be bought.  Regulators can be bought.  But juries of ordinary citizens from around the country can’t be bought.  That’s what makes the jury system such a high value target for special interest groups. We shouldn’t give up the protections of the civil jury system without first knowing all the facts.

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