Liebeck V Mcdonald’s
The case of Liebeck V McDonald’s Corporation also known as “The McDonald’s coffee case” is a well known court case which caused a lot of controversy. In February of 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79 year old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico sued McDonald’s Corporation for suffering third-degree burns from their product. Mrs. Liebeck and her grandson visited a local McDonald’s drive-thru and ordered a cup of coffee. After pulling away from the window, Mrs. Liebeck’s grandson stopped the vehicle so that his grandmother could add sugar and cream to her coffee. Mrs. Liebeck placed the cup between her legs to secure it and attempted to remove the lid.
In the process of removing the lid, the coffee spilled onto her lap. Mrs. Liebeck was wearing sweatpants which absorbed the coffee and held the hot liquid against her skin. After being taken to the hospital, Mrs. Liebeck underwent skin grafting to correct the third-degree burns covering six percent of her body. She was hospitalized for eight days and after she was released, she had to undergo two years of treatment. Mrs. Liebeck tried to settle with McDonald’s corporation by seeking $20,000 to cover her medical expenses, but the corporation only offered her $800.
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After McDonald’s refused to raise their offer, Mrs. Liebeck filed a suit. During the case, it was discovered that McDonald’s requires franchises to serve coffee at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, the coffee would cause a third-degree in two to seven seconds. Witnesses for McDonald’s were questioned regarding the coffee and they stated that consumers were not aware of how hot the coffee was and that they could be at risk of serious burns. They also testified that McDonald’s did not warn customers of the risk and couldn’t provide an explanation as to why there was no warning.
The witnesses also said that McDonald’s did not intend to reduce the temperature of the coffee. Documents were obtained from the corporation showing that between the years of 1982-1992 more than 700 people were burned with different levels of severity. The incidents resulted in other legal claims. This showed that the corporation was well aware the coffee they were serving customers could potentially cause harm. During discovery, McDonald’s said that it held the coffee between 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain optimum taste. They also admitted that they had not safety ramifications at this temperature.
The coffee served at McDonald’s is significantly hotter than coffee served at home and other establishments, which is generally 135-140 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, the Quality Assurance Manager for McDonald’s testified that burn hazards exist with any food or beverage served at 140 degrees or more, and that the coffee would not be fit for consumption at the temperature it was poured into the Styrofoam cup it was poured into because it would burn the mouth and throat. The manager admitted burns would occur but said that McDonald’s had no intention to reduce the temperature of its coffee.
Plaintiffs’ expert, a scholar in thermodynamics applied to human skin burns, testified that liquids at 180 degrees will cause a full thickness burn to skin in a matter of a few seconds. Other testimony revealed that 155 degree liquid would not cause as serious of a burn since it had time to cool. Had Mrs. Liebeck been served coffee at 155 degrees, she would not have sustained such serious injuries. McDonald’s came back with the argument that customers who purchase coffee in the drive-thru plan to consume the beverage once they reach their destination. Research shows that customers usually consume the coffee while driving.
The jury found McDonald’s at fault, but Mrs. Liebeck twenty percent at fault as well. Compensatory damages were $200,000 but reduced to $160,000 for Mrs. Liebeck being at fault too. The jury awarded $2. 7 million to Mrs. Liebeck in punitive damages but the trial court reduced that amount to $480,000. The total recovery at the trial for Mrs. Liebeck was $640,000. Both parties appealed and a settlement was reached between the two parties at an undisclosed amount but said to be near the $640,000 area. The court came to the decision based off of the facts of the case and the severity of the injury.
Tort remedies have evolved due to public policy incentives to protect individuals from physical, mental, and economic damage. Tort remedies also provide economic motivation for businesses as well as individuals to avoid conduct that could potentially harm others. The tort was not intentional it was negligence. McDonald’s Corporation has the duty to exercise reasonable care to its customers, employees, and its business. While knowing the harm the coffee could cause and not taking action to lower the temperature or post signs to warn the customers, McDonald’s is negligent.
Mrs. Liebeck was also held accountable by the court for a small part of the incident. Mrs. Liebeck should have used more caution and she also was aware that the coffee would be hot; she just did not know the coffee would be too hot. While the defendant was trying to raise the defense of contributory negligence, Mrs. Liebeck was not the only one at fault. This case was shown to have comparative negligence. Comparative negligence is a defense that permits a negligent plaintiff to recover some damages but only a portion to the defendant’s degree of fault.
The defendant was found to be negligent as well as Mrs. Liebeck being twenty percent at negligent. The decision of the court will hopefully decrease the negligence of other corporations and help them to put the customer’s best interests and safety first. Knowing they could have to pay out a lot of money in damages is a good way to motivate companies and individuals to post signs and warning labels and make the public aware of the risk they could potentially be in. The decision could also cause people of the public to “go looking for ways to get hurt” in order to receive some type of monetary settlement.
This is obviously unethical but you can’t put it past some people to try. If the court had ruled the other way, putting Mrs. Liebeck at fault, there would be less motivation for McDonald’s to lower the temperature of their coffee or to advise the public to be cautious. If businesses would set high customer care standards and focus less on profit alone, they could avoid harming people and being at the risk of lawsuits. It would most likely increase their business because people like to do business with people they feel they can trust and actually feel like they are cared about as a customer.
If businesses would take more effort there would be less negligence on their part and happier customers. I agree with the court’s decision now that I have gone through the entire case. At first, I must say I thought she was most likely the driver speeding on her way to work and spilled it on herself and got mad. After reviewing the facts, it is clear that it was not all Mrs. Liebeck’s fault. She was not driving the car, the car was stopped, and the coffee served was a lot hotter than normal coffee. McDonald’s did not have any warning labels to show the customers that their coffee was served significantly hotter and Mrs.
Liebeck had no way of knowing. Had she just tasted the coffee without trying to add cream she could have severely burned the inside of her mouth and throat which may have been even worse than the injuries she incurred. It is only fair for McDonald’s to have to pay for her medical bills as well as the other damages. This case caused a national discussion which ensued a need for a tort reform, and to this day “Stella Awards” are given on websites for apparently excessive or frivolous lawsuits. This case shows people you have to be accountable for your actions.