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Of all of the "infamous" cases of the jury system gone crazy, the McDonald’s "hot coffee" case must rank number one.

Every time I hear the topic brought up, those discussing it talk about the "millions" some lady got because she spilled coffee on herself while driving her car.  It is cited as an example of someone else ripping off the system and of someone not accepting personal responsibility for their actions.

Jurors come into court today not wanting to be "fooled" like that jury in the McDonald’s case.  The truth about this case is rarely told and certainly has not been reported in the media.  The reason for the failure to accurately report the case is undoubtedly because McDonald’s is such a heavy hitter, advertising-wise.  The case never would have gotten so far had McDonald’s accepted responsibility for its decision to put profits in front of safety.   When the McDonald’s jury first heard what the case was about, they thought it was silly.  It was not until McDonald’s executives testified that the jury got angry with the indifferent attitude of this huge corporation.

What The Jury Heard: The plaintiff, Stella Liebeck, was not driving. She was a passenger in a stopped car. She was doing what most of us commonly do after buying coffee at the drive-up window, she was adding cream and sugar to it. What she did not know was that her McDonald’s coffee was served at a temperature that was 45-50 degrees hotter than the industry standard. No one else served coffee that hot! If you are a coffee drinker, think back to the McDonald’s coffee of several years ago. You could not drink it right after it was served. At that temperature a liquid will cause third degree burns in a matter of seconds. There was no time to clean up a spill. Stella suffered third degree burns to her thigh and buttocks. Ten percent of her body was permanently scarred. She went through several skin grafting operations. McDonald’s executives testified at trial that they knew that the coffee could not be consumed at its serving temperature because it would injure the mouth and throat. The evidence at trial was that McDonald’s served their coffee at that temperature to save money because (1) they could use a cheaper grade of coffee; and (2) it cut down on the number of free refills they had to give away. They bragged about the excellent insulating qualities of the coffee cups. In the ten years preceding the injury to the plaintiff, McDonald’s knew that over 700 people, mostly children and their own employees, had been injured by coffee and hot chocolate that was too hot. McDonald’s safety engineers testified at trial that McDonald’s considered these other injuries, some of which were second and third degree burns, trivial. McDonald’s simply calculated the cost of paying claims and worker’s compensation benefits to people burned by their coffee and compared that with the enormous profit to be made from coffee.

What the Plaintiff did before her trial: After her operations, Stella asked McDonald’s to pay her medical expenses of approximately $20,000. McDonald’s refused and then offered her $800 for her claim. She originally had no thought of suing McDonald’s, but they insulted her. After filing her suit, a court ordered mediator recommended that McDonald’s pay her $225,000 to settle the claim. McDonald’s again refused.

The jury's verdict: After the jury heard the arrogant McDonald’s executives describe third degree burns as "trivial," they awarded her $200,000 for her medical expenses and pain and suffering and $2.7 million dollars in punitive damages. The $200,000 was reduced slightly to account for her share of responsibility. Punitive damages are used to deter future wrongful conduct. The jury awarded in excess of two million dollars in punitive damages.

The media made this seem high, but all the jury did was award the plaintiff one penny for every cup of coffee sold by McDonald’s world-wide in one day! McDonald’s did not appeal the verdict. The trial judge reduced the punitive damage award by over $2.2 million dollars. The total award $640,000. McDonald’s then settled the case (presumably for something less than $640,000) and insisted as a part of the settlement that the plaintiff not disclose the exact amount of the settlement.

McDonald’s has since lowered the temperature of its coffee to acceptable levels! Sounds a little different from the way it is portrayed in insurance company advertising, doesn’t it?

Ben Glass
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Ben Glass is a nationally recognized ERISA disability & life insurance attorney in Fairfax, VA.