The Infamous Mc Donalds’ coffee case
We have all heard about the infamous McDonalds’ coffee case. Stella Liebeck spilled hot coffee she had purchased at a drive-through window at a McDonalds, and severely burned herself. The jury awarded her $160,000 in damages plus $2.7 million in punitive damages, which equals about two days of McDonalds coffee sales, according to the Consumer Attorneys of California web page (www.caoc.com), the source for this column.The trial judge subsequently reduced the jury’s punitive damage award to $480,000, but that part of the story never gets told.Everyone assumes that Stella burned herself – so she shouldn’t have been able to recover anything, i.e., it was the lawyers’ fault, even though it was a jury verdict. Those damn lawyers!As is usually the case when you look closer, it isn’t always what it appears to be. In fact, there is a basis for McDonalds being found responsible. Stella had third degree burns over 6% of her body and was hospitalized for eight days while she underwent painful skin grafting. McDonalds apparently refused to settle her claim for $20,000 and took the case to trial.Here is the interesting part according to the C.A.O.C. article. During discovery, McDonalds produced documents showing more than 700 claims by people burned by its coffee in the prior ten year period. Apparently McDonalds had its coffee between 180 and 190, while other establishments sell coffee at substantially lower temperatures, generally 135 to 140.The McDonalds quality assurance manager testified that a burn hazard exists with any food substance at 140 or more, and that coffee in a Styrofoam cup at 180 would burn your mouth. He testified that McDonalds had no intention of reducing the “holding temperature” of its coffee.An expert testified that if Stella Lieback’s spill had involved coffee at 155, the liquid would have cooled and given her time to avoid a serious burn.McDonalds apparently ignored its own research which showed customers frequently consume their coffee immediately – while driving, rather than take it to work, by which time it cools.The jury found it was foreseeable that coffee delivered to a customer at 180 to 190 will burn, and that from time to time, folks spill their coffee, especially in a car. Apparently McDonalds coffee temperatures have dropped since the verdict.There is an e-mail floating around that purports to describe the “Stella Awards,” which is a list of truly outrageous legal verdicts, including the McDonalds’ case. I am told most of these are hoaxes. We will dig further and see if we can separate fact from fiction – in our never-ending pursuit of truth and justice.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter & Simon, with offices in Truckee, South Lake Tahoe and Reno. He is a mediator and was the Governor’s appointee to the Bipartisan McPherson Commission and the California Fair Political Practices Commission. He may be reached at email@example.com or at the firm’s web site at http://www.portersimon.com
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