Most people have heard of the McDonald’s hot coffee case or have some basic idea of what happened. However, most people also have misconceptions about the case based on media stories sparked by national attention and countless criticisms of the personal injury system.
In truth, the McDonald's hot coffee case showed us how our court system is supposed to work. It also showed us how defendants—usually large companies—mistreat victims of devastating product liability accidents.
The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case—The Background
In 1992, a 79-year-old woman named Stella Liebeck went through the McDonald’s drive-through in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and ordered a cup of coffee. Her grandson was driving while Stella was sitting in the passenger seat. Once she ordered her drink, she asked her grandson to pull into a parking spot so that she could add cream and sugar to her coffee. However, while adding her cream and sugar, coffee spilled onto her groin, burning her thighs and buttocks.
Even though she went to the hospital immediately, Stella suffered third-degree burns on over sixteen percent of her body. She had to stay in the hospital for eight days and needed to receive skin grafts. The ordeal left her with a permanent disfigurement on her inner thigh, significant disabilities for the rest of her life, and substantial financial hardships, including thousands of dollars in medical costs. She also lost 20 percent of her body weight following the incident.
The coffee served by McDonald's was around 180 degrees Fahrenheit and between 165 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit when it spilled on Stella. Plus, she only wore cotton sweatpants during the spill; the fabric was not strong enough to protect her body against the scalding liquid.
Following the ordeal, Stella asked McDonald’s for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses. However, McDonald’s only offered to provide her with $800. In response, Stella sued McDonald’s for gross negligence.
During the trial, her lawyers presented the following evidence:
- The restaurant had a franchise-wide policy of serving coffee at around 185 degrees Fahrenheit. In comparison, coffee made at home is only about 135-140 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Coffee around 185 degrees Fahrenheit is not suitable to drink because it can burn the throat and mouth and cause third-degree burns after only two to three seconds of skin exposure.
- A third-degree burn does not heal without skin grafting and other types of surgery. It can also result in permanent scarring and debilitating pain.
- McDonald’s had known about the risk of severe burns from its hot coffee for more than ten years. During this time, the company’s coffee had burned more than 700 people, with many individuals receiving severe burns in the perineum, inner thighs, genital area, and buttocks.
- McDonald’s had no plans to reduce the temperature of its coffee.
- McDonald’s earned around $1.35 million daily from their coffee sales. An expert witness for the company testified that the number of burns was insignificant compared to the number of coffee cups the company cups served each year.
- Although McDonald’s initially claimed they thought the customers would take their coffee home to drink, they finally confessed they knew many of their customers drank their coffee right away. Therefore, the company knew people did not give their drinks enough time to cool and consequently drank coffee at dangerous temperatures.
As a result of the lawsuit, the jury determined that McDonald’s was negligent and responsible for 80 percent of the accident. It awarded Stella $200,000 in compensatory damages (reduced to $160,000 to account for Stella’s 20 percent negligence) and $2.7 million in punitive damages, the equivalent of two days in coffee sales.
However, the trial judge reduced the punitive damages award to three times the compensatory damages, which equaled $480,000, making the total award $640,000. During the appeal process, McDonald’s and Stella ended up settling the case for an undisclosed amount.
The McDonald’s case provided us with many important points:
- When consumers use products the way they are meant to be used and suffer significant injuries because of the product, the company can be held accountable for the injuries and have to pay monetary damages to compensate them for their losses.
- Manufacturers are responsible for warning consumers about all their products’ potential risks.
- If a product is inherently dangerous and its dangers outweigh its benefits, the manufacturers are responsible for paying for the resulting harm.
This case also showed that when a defendant’s actions are especially egregious, the court may decide to award the victim punitive damages that may significantly exceed their losses.
The Controversy Surrounding the Case
Unfortunately, because of the media circus surrounding this case, numerous opinions formed around the ordeal, many of which incorrectly portrayed Stella as a woman who filed a frivolous lawsuit looking to win millions of dollars.
Many people based their opinions on incorrect information or lies. And because Stella was contractually obligated not to speak about the details of the case, the truth was not made available to the public, allowing people to continue to form inaccurate assumptions.
As a result, the McDonald’s hot coffee case was turned into a smear campaign for tort reform, allowing the public to believe that McDonald’s was the actual victim, not Stella.
The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case and What It Means for Product Liability Claims
The McDonald’s hot coffee case is an example of a product liability claim. In a product liability claim, any or all the parties along the manufacturing chain of any product may be liable for damages caused by the product.
Under product liability laws, a product must meet the consumer’s ordinary expectations. When a product has an unexpected defect or danger, the product does not meet ordinary expectations. When an unsafe product injures a consumer, they can seek compensation for their injuries and hold a company responsible for selling them a hazardous product.
Three Legal Theories Behind Product Liability Cases
Following a defective product accident, there are three main legal theories that victims can use to bring legal action.
A Negligence Claim
Typically, a claim based on negligence alleges that the defendant negligently designed or manufactured a product, and this negligence resulted in the victim’s trauma.
To bring this claim, victims must establish:
- The defendant owed the victim a duty of reasonable care, such as making sure their products were safe to sell
- The defendant breached their duty of care
- The victim suffered severe injuries because of this breach and
- The victim sustained damages
While there are numerous ways that a company might act negligently when it comes to product liability accidents, some common examples of manufacturer negligence include:
- Not providing proper testing or reviewing a product’s plans
- Not adequately warning consumers about non-obvious risks
- Not complying with specific regulations
A Strict Liability Claim
To bring a strict liability case, an individual harmed by a product does not need to establish negligence. Instead, if a defect exists in a product, the manufacturer and others in the distribution chain can be held responsible for any harm the product caused regardless of their intent to keep consumers safe or the actions the manufacturer took.
For a product strict liability claim, the victim must show:
- There was a relationship between the product and the defendant.
- A defect caused the product to be unreasonably dangerous, and
- The defect caused the individual’s injuries.
Lawyers use three different legal theories to prove strict liability. They may argue that the product had a defective design, had a manufacturing defect, or that the manufacturer or retailer failed to warn or instruct consumers on how to use the product safely. Each of these three theories could allow a victim to obtain compensation depending on the circumstances.
A Breach of Warranty Claim
A breach of warranty is a violation of an implied or express warranty and, therefore, a breach of contract.
Generally, sellers can implicitly or expressly assure the buyer about the quality or title of an item sold through an express or implied warranty.
- An Implied Warranty: This warranty is a promise by a manufacturer that their goods will not cause any harm if used as intended.
- An Express Warranty: This warranty is a statement the seller or manufacturer makes regarding the product.
A breach of warranty claim covers any individual who would reasonably want to use the product.
A Breach of Implied Warranty in the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case
Although there was evidence that McDonald’s knew their coffee was scalding hot in the McDonald’s hot coffee case, winning a product liability case does not require the victim to prove that the seller or company knew their product was unsafe.
Instead, because a manufacturer has an implied warranty of all their products, when a consumer purchases it, they should be able to use it for its intended purpose. If the product does not meet expectations, it can be considered a breach of implied warranty.
As a result, when a person buys coffee from a fast-food restaurant like McDonald’s, they should be able to drink it safely. This is especially true when companies know that customers will likely drink the beverage in their cars and expect the coffee to be at a reasonable temperature they can consume.
How Can Working With an Experienced Product Liability Lawyer Help You Fight for the Justice You Deserve?
The McDonald’s hot coffee case started many discussions about the validity of certain cases, frivolous lawsuits, and punitive damages. It also helped show that victims of product liability accidents have to face huge companies that will do whatever it takes to minimize losses after an accident.
This case shows that reaching out to an experienced product liability lawyer can help protect victims’ rights after a tragic product liability accident. A lawyer skilled in taking on these types of claims does not fear the big companies and will work to hold the wrongful parties accountable for your losses.
Once you retain a lawyer, they can:
- Review the facts of your accident, decide if you have a viable legal claim, and advise you of the legal options you can pursue
- Analyze and investigate what happened, and find the evidence needed to prove fault and the extent of your damages
- Hire experts to prove liability and substantiate your claim, including health care professionals, accident reconstructionists, and others
- Negotiate with the other side and fight for a fair settlement
- Ensure that legal files and motions are prepared correctly and submitted to the proper court before the statute of limitations runs out
- Proceed to trial if the other side is unwilling to offer you the money you need and pursue the financial recovery you deserve
If a defective product hurts you or a loved one, do not try to navigate the legal process or face a big company alone. Instead, contact an experienced product liability lawyer for a free consultation.