I don’t know any trial lawyer who has not had to deal with a prospective juror raising the issue of “That lady who dropped a cup of coffee in her lap and got $10 million from McDonald’s.” Back when it first happened, the discussion used to dominate jury selection rooms across the country. Tonight HBO airs a documentary called “Hot Coffee” that seeks to set the record straight about one of the most infamous and influential cases of American jurisprudence in the last twenty years.
The then-79 year old woman burned herself with a 49-cent cup of hot McDonald’s coffee. She had taken the lid off the cup to add cream and sugar after buying the coffee at the drive-through window of an Arizona MickeyD’s. The cup slipped from her hand and scalding hot coffee poured into her lap. In 1994, a jury awarded Stella Liebeck about $3 million, most of it in punitive damages. The damages were reduced by a judge and the case later settled out of court, but not before the dispute launched Liebeck and the case into the national spotlight as a symbol of a tort system run amok. Liebeck died in 2004. Big business and its tort reform movement, used the case as poster child for legislation capping damages and further limiting personal-injury cases. But few knew the salient facts of the case. First of all, it was not a jury run wild, as the damages were set by a judge after he felt $3 Million was too much. Secondly, the jury heard evidence that McDonald’s knew that their newly designed coffee machines would produce coffee that was “unfit for human consumption” at the time the coffee was brewed, but the company did nothing to make sure that employees waited the appropriate cooling off time before serving it. The machines were designed to help McDonald’s with a concern of their’s: that the drive through coffee would get cold by the time the driver got to work. So they wanted the coffee to be extra-hot and the new machines super-heated the coffee. McDonald’s instructed its workers to brew the coffee at 195-200 degrees Fahrenheit and serve the coffee at a temperature of over 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Traditionally, “hot coffee” is served at around 160 degrees Fahrenheit. An expert at the trial testifying on behalf of Mrs. Liebeck explained that lowering the serving temperature to about 160 degrees could make a big difference, because it takes less than three seconds to produce a third-degree burn at 190 degrees, about 12 to 15 seconds at 180 degrees and about 20 seconds at 160 degrees. Thirdly, the jury saw graphic photographs of the devastating injuries the scalding coffee caused to Ms. Lieber. She needed several surgeries including skin grafts to her inner thigh and vagina wall. Fourthly, the jury did fin d that Ms. Lieber as herself 20% responsible for the way she handled the cup, so it did not leave her off the hook for part of the blame. It awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages, not a huge amount for the injuries she sustained. Fifthly, when the jury went on to consider punitive damages, it had to consider what amount of money would be sufficient to punish McDonald’s for ignoring the safety of their consumers. News accounts after the verdict show that jurors were put off by several McDonald’s executives who testified at trial. Several of them thought that they downplayed the seriousness of the injuries and were callous about the potential exposure to harm of super-hot coffee. Company documents showed that in the past decade before the trial McDonald’s had received at least 700 reports of coffee burns ranging from mild to third degree, and had settled claims arising from scalding injuries for more than $500,000. At trial, Ms. Lieber testified that she offered to settle this case right after it happened with payment of her medical bills. The testimony of Christopher Appleton, a McDonald’s quality assurance executive, didn’t help the company, jurors said later. He testified that McDonald’s knew its coffee sometimes caused serious burns, but hadn’t consulted burn experts about it. He also testified that McDonald’s had decided not to warn customers about the possibility of severe burns. He was confronted with testimony from an earlier case, where he said he was “aware of the risk [of injury] but had no plans to turn down the heat.” Finally, he testified that McDonald’s didn’t intend to change any of its coffee policies or procedures, saying, “There are more serious dangers in restaurants.” So the jury decided to award $2.6 Million in punitive damages, because they heard proof that McDonald’s sold $1.3 million of coffee every day and knew that 2 days of coffee sales would send a message but hardly bankrupt the company.
Try explaining all that to prospective jurors. You can’t. There isn’t enough time or interest. All they know – thanks to the propaganda machine that followed the verdict – is that some lady won millions for spilling hot coffee on herself. Hopefully this HBO film will set the record straight and put this issue to bed. Yes, there are frivolous cases burdening our system. Yes, Americans are too quick to sue over some of life’s minor indignities. Yes, we should do more to prevent waste-of-time cases from draining time away from serious matters that need to be litigated. But, No, Stella Lieber’s case against McDonald’s was not one of them. It was an example of the American civil justice system working in the proper manner.