We’ve all heard about Liebeck v. McDonald’s, more commonly known as the “McDonald’s Coffee Case” of 1994. It was a products liability case that became, as ABC News called it, the “poster child of excessive lawsuits.” It’s easy, without knowing the facts of the case, to scoff at someone who would sue for being burnt by hot coffee.
Coffee is coffee, it’s supposed to be hot! But, is it supposed to be hot enough to cause third degree burns?
Stella Liebeck was 79 when she was in the passenger seat of her Ford Probe, as her grandson drove her through the drive thru of a Mcdonald’s Fast Food Restaurant in New Mexico. He pulled the car over so that Stella could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Stella put the cup between her knees and lifted the lid slightly. At that point, she spilled the entire cup of coffee on her lap. Her cotton sweatpants absorbed the coffee, holding it to her skin for over a minute and a half.
The coffee scalded her thighs, buttocks, and groin. At the hospital, it was determined that she had sustained third degree burns on 6% of her skin, and lesser burns on 16% of her skin. She remained in the hospital for 8 days and underwent skin grafting. In that time she lost 20% of her body weight, reducing her weight to 83 pounds, and causing an additional 2 years of treatment.
Liebeck sought to settle for $20,000 to cover her medical bills, which amounted to $11,000. McDonald’s offered $800. After McDonald’s refused her offer, Liebeck retained attorney Morgan Reed, who brought a case against McDonald’s, accusing them of “gross negligence” in making a product that was “unreasonably dangerous” and “defectively manufactured.”
Reed made a settlement offer of $90,000, which McDonald’s rejected. He made another offer of $300,000, followed by a mediator suggested offer of $225,000. McDonald’s rejected both of them, and the case went to trial.
In trial, Reed exposed that McDonald’s was serving coffee at temperatures of 180-190 degrees Farenheight. At this temperature, the coffee could cause third degree burns in 2-7 seconds. Reed also revealed during litigation that between 1982 and 1992, McDonald’s received over 700 reports of people being burned by coffee, and had settled claims for scalding injuries for over $500,000.
In the end, Liebeck was awarded just under $600,000 in punitive and compensatory damages.
Tort Reformists call this a “frivolous” lawsuit, and claim that it’s cases like this that are stressing the economy. But a case like this is far from frivolous. McDonald’s was serving coffee that had the potential to truly harm their customers. As we can see, it did. No labeled warning can replace a manufacturer’s responsibility to keep consumer safety a number one priority.
Product Liability Attorneys at the Mininno Law Office
Nowadays, we see more and more fault in our system regarding foreign manufacturers and their seeming exemption from U.S. regulations on product liability. But even native manufacturers are producing products that are defective and unsafe. Defective products are dangerous, and potentially harmful or fatal.
If you have been injured by a defective product, you may be entitle to compensation. Contact the Mininno Law Office for a free case evaluation, or call us for a free consultation at (856) 833-0600 in New Jersey, or (215) 567-2380 in Philadelphia.