When someone speaks about a frivolous law suit, somewhere in the conversation the McDonald’s scalding coffee case will surface. The hype that McDonald’s lawsuit generated continue to this day, but what many of us do not, were the real facts behind the lawsuit. I know that I had always believed that the person burned should have been more cautious and also that coffee is hot and may burn you if dropped in your lap. What I didn’t know and what we were not made privy to by our local news paper or on TV, was that there was more to the case that we never heard about.

The case involved a 79-year-old woman who was a passenger in her grandsons car and who ordered a cup of coffee at their local McDonald’s drive-up window. The coffee was served in a styrofoam cup and the grandson had stopped the vehicle so his grand mother could add cream and sugar to the coffee. While grandma held the cup between her legs trying to remove the lid, the entire contents spilled onto her lap.

Here is a description of what occurred:

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 refused.

So McDonald’s had a chance to settle the lawsuit for as little as $20,000, but instead decided to fight the case. One would have thought that the company and their attorneys must have really thought they were in the right, and that grandma should have been more careful. But then this was come to light during discovery:

“During discovery, McDonald’s 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.”

Duh! If you know that you are posing a hazard to your customers and disregard the hazard, you deserve to be sued. But then the outcome of the trial was withheld:

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.”

The jury originally awarded the plaintiff $160k compensatory damages plus another $2.7m punitive damages which the court reduced to $480k. But because the settlement was secret, we will never know the exact amount that was paid. Needless to say these facts received little, if any, media attention and the facts have become skewered over the years.

Were you aware of the facts of this case?

Comments welcome.

Source – From the ‘Lectric Law Library’s Stacks