The McDonald's Hot Coffee Case: The Poster Child of Lawsuit Frivolity - Was It Really Frivolous?
By Russell F Moran
The McDonald's "hot coffee case" has entered the realm of American legend. How can a woman sue and be awarded millions for being burned when she put a coffee cup between her legs? Frivolous? Lets look at the facts. 79 year-old Ms. Liebeck was a front seat passenger in a car driven by her nephew. After they bought coffee at a McDonald's drive-through, the nephew pulled the car over to a parking area so his aunt could put cream and sugar into the coffee. NOTE - the car was not moving. Ms. Liebeck steadied the coffee between her knees and attempted to pull the top off, spilling the entire cup onto her lap. She suffered third degree burns to her thighs, buttocks and groin. Because she was wearing cotton pants, the fabric held the hot liquid against her body. She was hospitalized for 8 days, underwent skin grafting, and lost 20 pounds. She required 2 years of follow-up medical care. Her attorney argued, not that it was negligent to serve hot coffee, but that it was unreasonably dangerous to serve coffee that hot.
A 12-member jury awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages (which was reduced to $160,000 because they also found that she was 20% comparatively negligent), and $2.7million in punitive damages. The trial judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000 - three times the compensatory damages, for a total judgment of $640,000. Newspapers screamed and the nation freaked out. Hold it right there. Why did everybody go crazy over the verdict? The answer is simple. A quick summary of the facts seemed to indicate that something was amiss. Woman buys hot coffee, puts it between her legs, gets burned and blames somebody else. Case closed, in the court of public opinion. But nothing can pour cold water (pardon the pun) on a hot story faster than looking at the facts.
The evidence showed that the coffee was served at 180° F, and expert testimony proved that such heat can produce third degree burns in about 12 seconds, not enough time to pull off garments or take other steps to stop the burning. The evidence also showed that McDonald's had over 700 complaints of excessively hot coffee in the 10 years before the incident. The case settled for an undisclosed amount while on appeal. The case still generates controversy, some arguing that it shows a tort system out of control, while others see it as a rather routine application of facts and law. You be the judge.