David P. Miraldi
If you ask most people, they will say that the McDonald's coffee case is one of the most outrageous court cases imaginable. Most will say, "Don't people know that coffee is hot?" You will also hear, "People have to take responsibility for their own actions." They then will conclude that the jury award was absolutely ridiculous.
But what really happened in the McDonald's coffee case? Did the jury completely lose its way in ruling in favor of the plaintiff?
The 79 year old plaintiff, Stella Liebeck, had purchased coffee and was sitting in the passenger seat of her grandson's car. The car was stopped when Stella placed the cup securely between her knees and tried to remove the lid. The cup tipped over and spilled scalding hot coffee onto her lap, causing third degree burns on her legs and genital area. She required hospitalization, skin grafting, and extensive treatment.
Mrs. Liebeck sued McDonald's because McDonald's coffee was sold at a temperature much higher than what other retailers sold their coffee. McDonald's coffee was sold at a temperature of 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit. Coffee at this temperature will cause third degree burns in three to seven seconds. These types of burns will not heal without skin grafting and extensive treatment.
Other coffee retailers sold their coffee at temperatures that were 30 to 40 degrees cooler. In the ten years before this lawsuit, McDonald's had received 700 reports of severe burns to customers who had been burned by McDonald coffee, often times the burns in the genital area, inner thighs, and buttocks. Not only were adults being scalded and burned, but children and infants were being burned by hot coffee, sometimes by McDonald employees who carelessly spilled coffee on them.
Even though McDonald's knew that its coffee was causing serious injuries because of its higher than normal temperature, it did not change its practice. McDonald's ignored that its coffee was much more dangerous than coffee sold by other coffee retailers. At trial, McDonald's management and its attorneys scoffed at Mrs. Liebeck's claim. Mrs. Liebeck had offered to settle for $20,000, but McDonald's never offered more than $800 to her.
So why all of the publicity and uproar? Those who wanted to change the tort system used this case to convince the public as well as legislators that the civil justice system was out of control. They only told a small part of the story because they wanted the public to embrace their program of limiting damages to seriously injured people.
What most people do not know is that the jury awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages to Mrs. Liebeck and this amount was reduced by twenty percent, the percentage of negligence that they attributed to Mrs. Liebeck for opening the coffee in the stationary car. The jury's award of 2.7 million dollars in punitive damages was approximately two days of coffee revenue at McDonald's. However, the system already had in place a way to reduce punitive damage claims without tort reform. The judge reduced the punitive damages to $460,000. The parties later settled the case after the court made this reduction.
Is the McDonald's coffee case really an outrageous result? Should juries no longer be trusted to award money compensation in injury cases? You make that determination.
To learn more about this fascinating case, click here.
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