Breakfast lovers at Mcdonlad’s know that breakfast isn’t complete without a hot cuppa’ Joe with cup holders and big warning labels which may be considered ubiquitous these days, but back in the early 90’s no such things existed. This U.S case, regardless of whether it was a frivolous suit or not, paved the way for warning labels on our favorite hot beverages.
At the cusp of winter in February of 1992, a 79 year old department store clerk named Stella Liebeck ordered a 49 cent cup of hot coffee at a nearby McDonald’s franchise drive through in Albuquerque, New Mexico with her grandson inside their Ford Probe sedan.
Stella, who was at the passenger seat at the time, placed the styro foam cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup as she wanted to add sugar and cream to her coffee. Stella, who was then wearing sweatpants, attempted to remove the lid of her styro-foam cup of her coffee which then spilled onto her lap causing third degree burns over her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. The burns shortly extended to her subcutaneous fat, muscle, and bone. The sweatpants aggravated her injuries when it absorbed the scorching coffee, holding it next to her skin.
The 79 year old department store clerk was hospitalized for eight days in which she underwent surgery and skin grafting and burn treatment which unfortunately resulted in her being permanently disfigured and disabled for two whole years.
Stella demanded from the Albuquerque franchise to pay her medical expenses totaling to approximately $11,000, which was refused by the billion dollar fast food giant.
Stella had no other recourse but to sue the local Mcdonald’s franchise which was later dropped from the lawsuit and subsituting the head honcho McDonald’s mother corporation itself.
It was later discovered during trial that Mcdonald’s coffee was served at a temperature of somewhere between 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit or 82 to 87 degrees celcius. For reference, water boils at a temperature of 212 degrees Fahrenheit or 100 degrees celcius.
The obvious question then is: Y u not make coffee less hot Mickey D?
THE SCALDING COFFEE CORPORATE PRACTICE
McDonald’s corporate policy states that that all coffee be served at 185 degrees, give or take five degrees to “fully extract the full coffee-flavor during the brewing process.” Billions of Mcdonald’s customers after all have enjoyed their coffee at this temperature with no complaints, right?
It was revealed during Stella’s lawsuit against the big yellow M that there had been 700 claims brought against the fastfood giant between 1982 and 1992 due to people being burned by its coffee, some of them similarly situated with Stella on her third degree burns in which McDonald’s had previously spent over $500,000 in out of court settlement. Despite this fact, Mcdonald’s didn’t budge in changing its piping hot coffee corporate policy.
Mcdonald’s argued in court that Stella’s injuries were the result of her own negligence as she did not remove her clothing at the time of the coffee spillage. Mickey Ds further argued that her injuries were aggravated due to her old skin, making her more vulnerable to more serious injuries. An executive of the restaurant behemoth testified in open court that McDonald’s had chosen not to warn its customers of the possible severe burns its coffee could cause because “there are more serious dangers in restaurants.”
McDonald’s further stated that the number of hot coffee burns suffered by its customers are “statistically insignificant” in comparison to the one billion cups of coffee sold by McDonald’s each year.
McDonald’s quality assurance manager added fire to the coffee flame when he answered Stella’s lawyer’s question in this way:
Q: Well, I’m curious because I’ve shown you recordations here of some 700 people here that have been burned. Obviously, to you 700 people burned is not a significantly high enough number to turn down the heat. Do you have in mind a number of how many people would have to be burned for you to become so concerned that you would insist that burn specialists be consulted and something be done to sell this coffee at a lower temperature?
A: No, I don’t have a number in mind.
Mcdonald’s offered an expert witness saying that coffee served above 130 degrees Fahrenheit could produce third degree burns; therefore, it did not matter whether its coffee was served at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit. This argument was possibly a stepping stone in making a conclusion that Mcdonald’s cannot be faulted for serving its piping hot coffee at such temperature since coffee was naturally supposed to be served hot, and hence it cannot be expected to serve coffee other than at a temperature above 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
Stella retorted and offered her own expert witness, one knowledgeable in thermodynamics, who testified that liquids can cause third degree burns to human skin in 2-3 seconds at 190 degrees; 12-15 seconds at 180 degrees; and in 20 seconds at 160 degrees, and so forth.
The conclusion being drawn out of the testimony was that had Stella’s coffee been served to her a little less scalding, vital seconds could have been added to her response time to allow her to get out of her grandson’s car and remove her clothing to prevent more serious burns to her skin. Unfortunately, the 79 year old grandmother had only about three seconds of reaction time to prevent any further damage to her.
The jury deliberated and sided with Stella, awarding her $200,000 compensatory damages, which was later decreased to $160,000 by the judge as it was determined that the injury was 20% Stella’s fault.
The jury further awarded Stella the amount of $2.7 million in punitive damages which was based on evidence that McDonald’s daily coffee revenues amounted to approximately $1.34 million, the award representing about two days worth of McDonald’s coffee sales back in the 90s. This award was later reduced to $480,000.00
Judge Robert H. Scott had this to say in his Decision in reducing the award by the jury:
I think that there was evidence and argument about the Defendant’s knowledge that the coffee could cause serious, third degree, full tissue burns. The Defendant McDonald’s knew that the coffee, at the time it was served, was too hot for human consumption . . . .
[T]he written transcript is not going to reveal the attitudes of corporate indifference presented by demeanor or of the witnesses for the Defendant McDonald’s as well as their employees, but the jury was exposed to it and I think that they properly considered it in their deliberations. And let me say that with knowing the risk of harm, the evidence and testimony would indicate that McDonald’s consciously made no serious effort to warn its consumers by placing just the most simple, adequate warning on the lid of the cup in which the coffee was served. . . . This is all evidence of culpable corporate mental state and I conclude that the award of punitive damages is and was appropriate to punish and deter the Defendant for their wanton conduct and to send a clear message to this Defendant that corrective measures are appropriate.
In short, Mcdonald’s simply had to put warning labels in its Coffee.
About the author:
Joel Enrico Santos is a litigation lawyer handling Civil, Criminal, Labor, Immigration, Transportation, Corporate, and Land Registration cases. He is an Attorney working for a Makati based lawfirm and is a solo practitioner handling cases on his own since April, 2013. Get Schwifty!
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