About the woman who sued McDonald’s for hot coffee

October 26, 2011 | By | 4 Replies More

I had never before seen the injuries suffered by the woman who sued McDonald’s for its hot coffee. Now I have.


Excerpt from 2011 documentary "Hot Coffee" by anonymouscoward382

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Category: Court Decisions, Law

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    I don’t think that many people doubted that the injuries were real. Using the emotional and evocative process of showing the pictures of how badly she hurt herself is effective in wooing a jury. We feel her pain, and the instinct for vengeance causes us to think, “Someone should pay for this.”

    Hot coffee needs to always be treated as hot coffee, in case it is really hot. I do forget sometimes and scald my tongue, a tissue that grows back quickly.
    That people have become used to warm as the new hot is not the responsibility of the producer of the beverage. Hot water/coffee/tea will scald. A good common sense rule is: Don’t squeeze flimsy cups of it between your thighs, or try to balance it on your lap.

    But the real question is, should a knife manufacturer pay for finger reattachment because the sharp knife turned out to be sharp, and the knife itself was not engraved with “Caution, may cause finger detachment?”
    Or has this been a real case, already?

    I was booted from a jury once during voir dire apparently because of my engineering degree (that’s when they stopped asking me questions). The plaintiffs were claiming that a child was injured by riding on a tractor powered tow-behind mower that his father was driving because the mower attachment said Danger: Do not ride on it only on the sides and in the manual, but not on top of the mower deck. Therefore the manufacturer was liable for damages. I didn’t bother to follow up when I saw how carefully the jury was selected for people with children and no mechanical know-how. The injuries were quite evocative, and John Deere has money.

    • Jim Razinha says:

      A friend was passed over (more than 20 years ago) for a jury selection on a microwave oven case – person ran it with a spoon in the dish and the arcing resulted in a fire. Asked his profession – “I’m an engineer” which led to the next question that sealed his unfate: “So you are familiar with the operation of a microwave?” Or, perhaps it was his answer…”Isn’t everybody?”

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Dan,
    This is the argument made by many who are unfamiliar with the details of the case. There exists food safety guidelines that include a safe maximum temperature for coffee warmer settings. MacDonald’s corporate policy required the warmer to be set around 180 degrees Fahrenheit, well above the safe limit. water at 18o degrees can cause third degree scalds within 3 seconds. Most restaurant coffee warmers are set between 145 and 160, and many are below 140. The warmers used at McDonald’s had an internal thermostat which could only be set by removing the back of the warmer with a screwdriver. The reason for the extra hot coffee was that it allowed McDonald’s to save a few cents per pot of coffee by using cheap quality coffee.

    The coffee was so hot in the Liebeck case that it had softened the Styrofoam cup, causing it to collapse when she attempted to remove the lid to add creamer and sugar. Since the car, a Ford Contour, lacked cup holders or a flat surface to set the cup on, she set the cup on the edge of her seat between her knees.

    She knew the coffee was hot. She had been a coffee drinker for many decades. Most people, including her, had know idea that hot coffee was capable of causing injuries of the extent she incurred.

    Except McDonald’s knew.In one year, McDonald’s had paid off hundreds of similar, but less extensive injury claims from customers and employees severely burned by their coffee. This came out during the trial. McDonald’s was was aware of the danger, but decided to conduct business as usual because their financial risk analysis indicated that lowering the temperature to where the customers could actually taste the coffee would reduce revenues by more than the cost of buying off the victims.

    McDonald’s legal team were the ones that insisted on a jury trial. It was their intent to set a precedent for this type of product liability case. A venue was chosen in a court where jurors had shown a disdain for frivolous lawsuits, and the strategy of McDonald’s legal team was to misrepresent the case as frivolous. In spite of this, the attitude of the corporate lawyers came across as callous and mocking and the jury awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages, which was reduced to $160,000 as they believed Mrs Liebeck was partial responsible for her injuries. At his point the jury was instructed by the judge that they could punitive damages of 1% of corporate annual coffee revenues nation wide. This amounted to 2.7 million dollars.

    This amount was considered excessive and reduced to $480,000. McDonald’s then decided to settle in a closed meeting.

    According to a paralegal who was in the closed session, McDonald’s legal team noting Mrs Liebeck advanced age, threatened to keep the case in appellate courts until Mrs Liebeck died from old age, saddling her children and grandchildren with legal fees and court cost if she did not agree to a greatly reduced settlement along with a non disclosure agreement whereby no one in the family would be allowed to discuss the terms of the settlement with the media, while McDonald’s was free to represent the case as they saw fit. The paralegal did not state the dollar amount of the settlement, but noted it was sufficient to cover Mrs Liebeck’s medical and legal bills and for ongoing therapy for many years.

  3. Idrathernotsay says:

    Niklaus, thanks for your enlightening comments. I too have noticed that most people — in fact nearly everyone I know, even people who usually sympathize with consumers and plaintiffs more than with corporations — seem to parrot the McDonald’s trope on this story as a “frivolous” award and a poster case of “tort abuse.”

    It gets frustrating having to clue people in to the facts of the case (the same ones you cited). I wasn’t aware of the post-trial, closed negotiations around the settlement. I guess McDonald’s got what it needed to make sure it could whitewash its role and keep even most usually-conscious Americans in the dark.

    Good thing Ford didn’t get away with that back in the ’70s with the Pinto explosions. That story — first exposed by someone I met while in J-school — showcased a company’s “cost-benefit” calculations eerily similar to those McDonald’s reportedly made in this case. That is, it came out at trial that Ford had already settled a number of wrongful-death claims for their detonating Pintos, but their analysis indicated it would cost more money to redesign the car than to just keep paying settlements to victims’ next-of-kin. So that’s what they did.

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