Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Hot Topic!

There are probably eight million or so examples of frivolous lawsuits which can be found on the internet and elsewhere. And whenever you find a list containing more than one freakin' example, there will invariably be a mention of "that lady who sued McDonald's because her hot coffee was actually hot" -- or words to that effect -- as if to say, "Duh! It's supposed to be hot, stupid! And you shouldn't have been drinking it while you were driving!" (Yeah, right, like none of us have ever driven with only one hand on the wheel.)

Well, every time I see that example, I shake my head. The case of "that lady" isn't that simple, and the lawsuit wasn't that frivolous.

But what can I do about it?

Oh, wait,! I do have this blog to use as my soapbox. I can educate the world! (Okay, okay, maybe ten or twelve people in the world... but it's a start.)

The following quotes are taken from the Consumer Attorneys of California website. Wherever you see bold print, that's just intrusive little me emphasizing one thing or another!

McDonalds coffee was not only hot, it was scalding - capable of almost instantaneous destruction of skin, flesh and muscle.

Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was in the passenger seat of her grandson's car when she was severely burned by McDonalds coffee in February 1992. Liebeck, 79 at the time, ordered coffee that was served in a Styrofoam cup at the drive-through window of a local McDonalds.

After receiving the order, the grandson pulled his car forward and stopped momentarily so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. (Critics of civil justice, who have pounced on this case, often charge that Liebeck was driving the car or that the vehicle was in motion when she spilled the coffee; neither is true.) Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup. As she removed the lid, the entire contents of the cup spilled into her lap.

The sweatpants Liebeck was wearing absorbed the coffee and held it next to her skin. A vascular surgeon determined that Liebeck suffered full thickness burns (or third-degree burns) over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting. Liebeck, who also underwent debridement treatments, sought to settle her claim for $20,000, but McDonalds refused.

During discovery, McDonalds produced documents showing more than 700 claims by people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some claims involved third-degree burns substantially similar to Liebeck's. This history documented McDonalds' knowledge about the extent and nature of this hazard.

McDonalds also said during discovery that, based on a consultant's advice, it held its coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain optimum taste. He admitted that he had not evaluated the safety ramifications at this temperature. Other establishments sell coffee at substantially lower temperatures, and coffee served at home is generally 135 to 140 degrees.

Further, McDonalds' quality assurance manager testified that the company actively enforces a requirement that coffee be held in the pot at 185 degrees, plus or minus five degrees. He also testified that a burn hazard exists with any food substance served at 140 degrees or above, and that McDonalds coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into Styrofoam cups, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat.

McDonalds asserted that customers buy coffee on their way to work or home, intending to consume it there. However, the company's own research showed that customers intend to consume the coffee immediately while driving.

The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. This amount was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Liebeck 20 percent at fault in the spill. The jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which equals about two days of McDonalds coffee sales.

The trial court subsequently reduced the punitive award to $480,000 -- or three times compensatory damages -- even though the judge called McDonalds' conduct reckless, callous and willful.

The complete article is here, if you care to read it. Me? I need coffee!

Thanks for your time.


  1. EEK! I've wondered about that case but was never interested enough to look it up. This was enlightening to say the least. Drinking coffee while driving is definitely hazardous to your health.

  2. It seems to me is we are living in a sue crazy world. Granted there are many issues that should be addressed, but maybe a little common sense would avoid some of the pain we inflict on ourselves.

  3. @Nikgee: Oh, I agree that we live in a "sue crazy world." But Stella Liebeck's case is arguably the most referred-to example of silly lawsuits... and it shouldn't be. Most (if not all) of the other examples I've seen on those sorts of lists -- those that are true, anyway, and there are plenty of "examples" that aren't true -- have been pretty stupid.

  4. Wow, interesting. I always heard the things you mentioned that weren't true, and in fact, friends and I mentioned the case recently. I will never speak of it in the same way again, so thanks for the illumination.

  5. Whoa!! See why I prefer a camera in my free hand while I drive? ;)

  6. First Happy Early Birthday (just catching up on posts), loved the Sepia Photo. And, great post. These things always piss me off, I'm glad you published the real story.

  7. Wow. I wasn't aware of all those details. People don't always understand that just because you are partly at fault for an accident doesn't mean that you aren't entitled to sue, either.

  8. well i never.

    word verif. is prozvrat.
    just saying.....

  9. thank you SF, you've added a whole new light to this story. Oh gosh that is terrible. Still don;t think she should have got as much though. but there you go. It was obviously FAR FAR too hot too.

  10. That picture is just painful, I can't imagine what she must have suffered while her clothes were sticking to her. Thanks for presenting this!

  11. Awesome post - I always wondered that if the case was as black and white as many make it seem, why would the courts have granted the case to her? I know there have been some crazy cases, but if it literally had been just a small burn from a coffee purchased by an adult, falling into her lap by her own fault, then surely our legal system would not stoop to granting it. Thank you for an amazingly enlightening explanation.

    I am an avid listener of This American Life, I think they should do a story about these type of cases. Maybe they could have you on as a guest contributer for this story :)

  12. I'm amazed that after a year and a half, this is still my most visited post! I sure hope some of you first-time folks stick around and read some of the others!


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