Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The  infamous  McDonalds  hot  coffee  case

Everyone knows about the McDonald’s coffee case. It was in all the media.  Any time you find yourself in a debate about frivolous lawsuits and tort reform, someone’s probably going to bring up the incident about “that woman who sued McDonald’s over the hot coffee that burned her and who won more than a two- million dollar jury award.” The particulars of the case have been repeated so often that it has begun to sound like an urban legend.

It has been routinely cited as an example of how litigious citizens have taken advantage of America’s legal system, but is that a fair rendition of the facts of that infamous McDonalds coffee case?  I am going to tell you what really happened to Stella Liebeck, the 79-year-old Albuquerque, New Mexico woman who spilled coffee on herself on February 27th 1992 and then sued McDonald’s because the coffee was too hot. I will also tell you why the case garnered so much media attention, who funded the efforts to fight her in court and to what end. And after reading this article, you can decide who really profited from the spilling of the hot coffee on the woman’s groin and surrounding areas of her butt and thighs.

The media first began telling us the alleged story of how the woman who spilled the entire contents of McDonald's coffee on herself did so while she was carelessly speeding down the highway with the Styrofoam cup of hot coffee in between her legs next to her groin and how it spilled over her and then how her high-priced lawyer convinced a credulous jury to stick it to the deep-pocketed corporation resulting in her scoring a multi- million-dollar jackpot against McDonalds. Guess what. It was all an urban myth.

First of all, she wasn’t the driver of the car—it was her nephew. Secondly—they weren’t driving down the highway—they were parked in the parking lot of McDonalds. Thirdly, the Styrofoam cup wasn’t next to her groin—it was in between her knees. Here is what really happened.

When her nephew brought the hot coffee in a Styrofoam cup to his aunt, he didn’t know that the fluid in the paper cup was 180 degrees Fahrenheit because Styrofoam lessens the surface temperature of the cup. Nevertheless, the coffee inside the cup was scalding hot. When the coffee reaches 130 to 135°F, it is too hot to touch without being burned so you can imagine how hot 180 degrees Fahrenheit (82.2 Celsius) is. Liebeck’s lawyers established that McDonald’s had a policy of serving its coffee at temperatures ranging from 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit to enhance flavor and ensure that to-go cups were still warm when they reached their destinations. The coffee that you brew at home is sufficient at about 140 degrees Fahrenheit so it follows that there’s a significant difference between what temperature is sufficient to brew coffee and what McDonalds believes is sufficient.

Now you will rightly ask; “How did she spill the coffee on herself?” The answer is quite simple. When her nephew handed her the cup of hot coffee, the cap was still on it. She had to remove it before she could put the cream and sugar into it so she braced the cup between her knees and then began to pry the lid from the cup. Since she was pulling the lid upwards and towards her, it suddenly came off and the momentum she generated by her pulling on the lid towards her resulted in all of the hot coffee coming out of the paper cup and spilling over the area of her groin, lower butt and thighs. Liebeck’s sweatpants absorbed the hot coffee and held it next to her skin.

Liebeck ended up spending eight days in the hospital. She suffered from 3rd degree burns on 6 percent of her body and burns of a lesser degree on another 16 percent of her body. They were horrible burns and covered a large area of her body. The TV show, Hot Coffee showed its viewers her burns that required multiple operations and skin grafts to replace the burned skin she lost. She never fully recovered before she died twelve years later in 2004 at the age of 91.

However what most people do not know is that other corporations had spent millions of dollars distorting her story to promote tort reform (restricting the amount anyone can sue for) despite the fact that McDonalds previously had over 700 complaints filed against it for serving its customers coffee that was too hot and had cause burns to its customers. That comes around to one for every 24 million cups of coffee sold by McDonalds so to that particular corporation, the danger was statistically insignificant—perhaps to McDonalds but certainly not to   Liebeck.

One would think that the McDonalds Corporation would have realized that they shouldn’t serve coffee that is scalding hot to its customers. Can you believe it? Now they serve hot coffee at a temperature of 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Imagine if you will what would have happened to that woman had she gulped the coffee down her throat even at 170 degrees Fahrenheit.  She would have died from suffocation because the hot coffee while searing her throat would cause her throat to seize up to the extent that it would close and she couldn’t breathe anymore.

Was this unfortunate woman greedy and especially litigious? Consider this. She initially requested only about $20,000 to cover the $11,000 she spent in medical bills and other related expenses. She took McDonald’s to court only after the corporation offered her a paltry $800 as full settlement for what had happened to her. In a move McDonald’s surely lived to regret, the restaurant countered that lowball offer  because  it apparently used what they believed was  common-sense logic that most people applied towards the case when they heard about it; and that is, if you spill coffee into your own lap, the only person liable for the accident is you.

Now here is the dizzy height of the stupidity that McDonalds reached. The go-away offer didn’t sit too well with Liebeck and her legal counsel, and although they made several other attempts to settle the case out of court including an offer as high as $300,000, McDonald’s refused to even blink. McDonald’s asked for a summary dismissal of Liebeck case on the grounds that she was the actual cause of her injuries since she was the one who physically spilled the coffee on herself, not McDonalds. The trial judge rejected their motion and then told Liebeck and McDonald’s to attend a mediation session in a last-ditch attempt to hammer out a settlement. The mediator advised McDonald’s to settle for $225,000. McDonald’s again scoffed at giving her money from its coffers. The case subsequently was put to the jury.  

The jurors only needed four hours of deliberation to arrive at their verdict. The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages but dropped this sum to $160,000 since it felt that Liebeck was 20-percent at fault for her accident. They may have felt that she pulled on the lid too violently. The headline-generating $2.7 million Liebeck was awarded by her jury in punitive damages which was selected by them because it approximated two days’ worth of the revenues the McDonald’s Corporation world-wide makes by selling its coffee. As far as the jury was concerned, the Liebeck suit was a reasonable attempt to seek appropriate redress for a serious harm, not about a clumsy woman trying to wring millions from an innocent corporation.

The jury awarded Stella Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages.  Judge Robert H. Scott on appeal reduced the award of punitive damages from $2.7 million to $480,000. He then rightly characterized McDonald’s as engaging in “willful, wanton, and reckless behavior.”  Both parties appealed the trial judge’s reduced figure for damages, and the two parties eventually reached an undisclosed out-of-court settlement before the appeals were heard by a higher court.

McDonald’s Quality Assurance Group Manager, Chris Appleton was asked this question. “If you add up the burn history of McDonald’s, it’s over 700 burn cases and that doesn’t surprise you?” Appleton’s answer: “I can’t say I’m surprised. I’m glad the numbers [are] not higher. . . I’m really pleased [that] it’s not more than that.”

What an image-damaging reply he gave. Seven-hundred complaints about coffee that is too hot doesn’t surprise him? He should have been ashamed to admit it.

The public relations campaign by other large corporate interests sought to employ mass misinformation to undermine the decision made by the ordinary citizens who sat on
Liebeck’s jury who had heard all the evidential facts in the McDonald coffee case and then applied their legal authority to make their decision.

Does it really surprise you that other large corporations would go that far to assist McDonalds to deny the woman what was due to her?  But then, that is what you can generally expect from many large corporations who think that their image and their profits are more important to them than is the safety of their customers. They didn’t want to end up like McDonalds and have large damage awards applied against them also. Well, here is the happy news. They failed in their endeavors because large payouts to their customers are still being made when some of these foolish and careless corporations also screw up like McDonalds did. They forget that even though you step on a scorpion to stop it from stinging you, you can still get stung by its tail anyway.

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