Hot coffee spills are a perennial darling of product liability lawyers.
Every so often a case comes along that grabs headlines, captures the imagination, and reopens the conversation about frivolous lawsuits, tort reform, and how you like your coffee. The latest baits the public with a few new twists: the litigant is a cop, the coffee was given at no charge, and he’s suing everyone –Starbucks, the barista, the store manager, and the coffee cup’s manufacturer.
Each time we get a new one of these cases, the talk inevitably turns to Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, the 1994 product liability lawsuit that is the stuff of legends. In its much-told popular version, an elderly New Mexican woman bought coffee at a McDonald’s drive through, spilled it on herself, and then successfully sued the fast food company for $3 million. This version of the events became the punchline to a thousand jokes and inspired one of the more memorable Seinfeld episodes. It also became a flashpoint in a national debate over frivolous lawsuits and a rallying cry for tort reform that nearly torpedoed the 7th Amendment.
The bare bones of the lawsuit are true: there was a spilled cup of coffee and an absurdly large payout.
Less known is that Ms. Liebeck was seriously burned. Third degree burns covered 6% of her body. She had to be hospitalized for eight days and underwent skin grafting surgeries and other treatments over the next two years. She might have been clumsy or sloppy or even negligent when she popped the lid off to add cream and sugar, but that coffee was HOT!
It was one scalding, blistering, piping hot cup of coffee.
When you buy a hot beverage you can reasonably expect it to be hot; in fact hotness is part of the value being provided. It can even be hot enough to demand caution on the part of the drinker. Just how hot is at the seller’s discretion. Your home carafe probably holds the coffee at 150º or so, while a restaurant is likely serving it at more like 175°. There’s no legally sanctioned serving temperature, and when there’s litigation the courts generally look to loosely defined industry standards.
McDonald’s had served Ms. Liebeck a 193° cup of coffee—that’s dangerously hot by anyone’s standards. She wasn’t looking for a big pay day but just wanted to be reimbursed for direct costs related to the accident. She wrote to McDonald’s asking for $20,000 to cover hospital bills and some lost wages, and the company countered with a lowball offer of $800. After a few more rounds of letters, and with no settlement in sight, she filed a lawsuit asking for $100,000 in compensatory damages and more in punitive damages.
Why punitive damages? Because McDonald’s was knowingly selling a beverage at a temperature that is unsafe for contact with human flesh.
McDonald’s was well aware that its coffee was dangerously hot. It had already seen 700 claims relating to hospitalizations and medical care for second and third degree burns sustained by both children and adults, but deemed the issue ‘statistically insignificant,’ occurring in a mere one in 24 million coffee sales. The corporation’s quality assurance manager and its human factors engineer both testified that while serious injury occurs on a regular basis, from a business standpoint it was more efficient to just settle claims than to alter the brewing process. The original offer to Liebeck of $800 no doubt fit into that calculation.
After hearing this tale of corporate indifference, the jury in Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants needed just four hours to reach its infamous decision.
The jury awarded Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. It’s a jawdropper until you realize that it reflected a mere two days’ worth of McDonald’s coffee revenues, and was not even enough to push the coffee issue into the category of ‘statistically significant.’ In other words, they’re still brewing and serving coffee at dangerously high temperatures and still fighting off claims with cash settlements.
Mobile coffee technology has evolved in the intervening years.
The safer, sculpted travel lid with a sipping hole has replaced the old-style flat pull-tab lid as the norm in to-go cups. Cup holders are now standard for every seat in the car, and all those lattés and cappuccinos are cooling things down because milk is steamed at much lower temperatures than coffee is brewed. Still, the burns occur and the lawsuits persist.
- Read about the current state of coffee spills in the recently published Handling Hot Coffee.
- Hot Coffee: The Movie is available for streaming on Netflix.
- Follow along as Officer Matt Kohr aims to break new legal ground as he sues Starbucks, International Paper, and the guys who made and served his coffee.