McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case: Frivolous or Legitimate – You Decide

by wpadmin on February 4, 2014

As trial lawyers in Connecticut, we get a unique opportunity to really delve into the hearts and minds of community members in what we refer to as the process of voir dire.  The word voir in this context is an old French word meaning “truth”.  The phrase voir dire refers to the manner in which attorneys question prospective jurors about their backgrounds and potential biases before being chosen to sit on a jury.  In most states and the Federal system, this is predominantly done in a group setting… that is, attorneys for each side get an opportunity to question potential jurors in the presence of all other potential jurors.  In Connecticut, however, voir dire is conducted individually.  The right to question potential jurors in isolation and outside the presence of the other jurors is not only the law but a Constitutional right guaranteed by Article I, Section 19 of the state Constitution.

Stella Liebeck (the infamous 79 year old woman who sued McDonald’s) was burned on February 27, 1992.  The verdict of 2.86 million was rendered by a New Mexico civil jury on August 17, 1994.  So why am I writing about this case now you ask?  Well, I recently had an opportunity to question potential jurors in a personal injury case in Hartford.  During my questioning of each juror, I raise the topic of tort reform.  For those unfamiliar with the phrase, tort reform is the idea that our civil justice system makes it too easy for regular folks to sue big businesses and recover hundreds of thousands of dollars in so-called frivolous lawsuits.  Proponents of the movement argue that plaintiffs’ attorneys are a menace to society by bringing lawsuits that undermine the quality and availability of health care, ruin the local economy, raise the prices of goods and services and threaten religion.

So I ask each potential juror whether they have ever given any thought to the United States civil justice system or personal injury lawsuits in general.  This usually leads to a discussion about what they have heard about personal injury lawsuits on television and in the newspaper.  Keeping in mind the fact that the voir dire process I recently participated in in Hartford was some 10 years after the McDonald’s hot coffee verdict and some 2,000 miles away from the court where the case was heard, it is amazing how many people still bring up the McDonald’s hot coffee case.  It is even more amazing how many people are misinformed about the facts.

What did the lady think would happen when she drove off with a hot cup of coffee between her legs?”  “How is it McDonald’s fault that the lid popped off and she spilled coffee on her lap while driving?”

One common misconception from jurors is that Stella Liebeck was driving when she was burned by the scalding hot coffee.  The truth is… Stella was actually sitting in the front passenger seat of her grandson Chris’s parked car when the incident occurred.  After proceeding through the drive-through, Chris pulled his car into a nearby parking space to allow Stella to mix in her cream and sugar.  Stella placed the Styrofoam cup between her knees and using both hands pulled off the lid.  Within seconds, the entire cup of 190 degree coffee spilled into Stella’s lap.  The sweatpants that Stella was wearing absorbed the hot coffee like a sponge and held it against her skin.

“That is an absorbent amount of money to compensate someone for such minor burns.

Another common misconception from jurors I have spoken to is that Stella only received minor burns from the incident.  The truth is… Stella actually suffered excruciating third degree burns (the worst kind) to her inner thighs, groin and vaginal area.  Stella was hospitalized for a total of 8 days and underwent several painful wound care and skin grafting procedures.

McDonald’s served its coffee just as hot as the rest of the industry.

Another common misconception from jurors is that McDonald’s served its coffee just as hot as the next guy.  The truth is… McDonald’s had a policy in which it was directed to keep its coffee between 180 – 190 degrees.  At 180 degrees, hot liquids can cause severe burns to human skin anywhere between 2 and 7 seconds.  At the time of Stella’s incident, most other commercial establishments were serving their coffee between 130 and 140 degrees.  Compare that to the coffee we drink at home which is served at approximately 135 degrees.  As Stella’s lawyer pointed out during trial, “the coffee was at a temperature that would be equal to the temperature of your radiator fluid after driving”.

This was the one and only complaint McDonald’s received about the temperature of its coffee being too hot.”

Another common misconception from jurors is that Stella was the first person to complain to McDonald’s about the temperature of its coffee being too hot.  The truth is… McDonald’s had received approximately 700 previous complaints and had paid out over $500,000 in burn claims.

2.86 million dollars is an exorbitant amount of money to compensate Stella for her burns.”

Another common misconception from jurors is that Stella was awarded millions of dollars in compensatory damages, that is, to make up for the harm she suffered as a result of the burns.  The truth is… Stella was only awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages which was later reduced by the Judge to $160,000.  The 2.7 million dollar punitive aspect to the verdict was calculated by the jury not to compensate Stella but to punish McDonald’s for knowingly keeping its coffee at dangerously high temperatures.  The jury apparently calculated the punitive aspect of the verdict based upon McDonald’s company-wide revenue for two-day’s sales of coffee.

“Stella is just another money hungry consumer looking to take advantage of our civil justice system.”

Another common misconception from jurors is that Stella decided to sue McDonald’s immediately on some kind of get rich quick scam.  The truth is… Stella actually offered to settle with McDonald’s for approximately $20,000 to avoid a lawsuit.  In response, McDonald’s offered Stella approximately $800 when she had already incurred approximately $10,500 in past medical expenses, $2,500 in future medical expenses and approximately $5,000 in lost wages.

It is easy to make light of a case that sounds like a woman was able to successfully sue McDonald’s for millions of dollars for spilling hot coffee on her lap.  And the insurance industry knows it.  Which is why it has spent millions of dollars making it the poster child for what is wrong with America’s civil justice system.  But a little knowledge into the actual facts of the McDonald’s case goes a long way towards understanding just how vital our civil justice system is in leveling the playing field between average consumers like Stella Liebeck, big businesses like McDonald’s and moneyed special interests like the insurance industry.  So the next time you hear someone belittle the McDonald’s case and cite it as an example of what is wrong with modern day America, politely find out how much that person truly knows about the facts of the case.  You will be amazed at just how misinformed the majority of the public really is about what truly happened to Stella Liebeck in 1992.

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