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Understanding the Nature of a National Case

How Stella Liebeck changed the way we view corporations

When Americans first heard about "the woman who sued McDonalds because her hot coffee was too hot," many thought the case was a joke.  But then as details emerged, attorneys all over the country took notice.  The Liebeck case had the potential to change how the civil justice system worked.

What happened to Stella Liebeck?

Stella Liebeck lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In February 1992, she was seated in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car when she was severely burned by McDonald's coffee. The coffee was purchased from the drive through window of a local McDonald's.

After receiving their order, Stella’s grandson pulled his car into a parking space so that Stella could add cream and sugar to her coffee (Critics of civil justice often claim that Stella was driving the car or that the vehicle was in motion when she spilled the coffee; neither is true). Stella placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup. As Stella removed the lid, the entire contents of the cup spilled into her lap.

Stella suffered terrible burns. The sweatpants Stella was wearing absorbed the coffee and held it next to her skin. A vascular surgeon determined that Stella suffered full thickness burns (or third-degree burns) over six percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. Stella was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting.

Stella also underwent debridement treatments (removal of dead tissue, foreign bodies, and poorly healing tissue from a wound). Stella originally asked McDonald's to pay $20,000 to help pay for her medical bills, but McDonald's refused. Instead of taking responsibility for their actions by accepting this reasonable settlement offer, McDonald's forced a jury of fellow New Mexicans to take time out of their lives to come to Court. The jury’s job was to listen to the evidence and decide if McDonald's shared responsibility for the terrible injuries Stella suffered.

What did the Jury learn about McDonald's at the Trial?

McDonald's already knew there was a problem with its coffee causing serious burns to many its customers before Stella’s injury. McDonald's was forced to tell the jury that more than 700 of its customers had presented claims related to being burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some of the injuries involved third-degree burns, substantially similar to those suffered by Stella. This proved McDonald's knew about nature of this hazard and that it was not an isolated incident.

McDonald's said a consultant advised the company to keep the temperature of the coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain optimum taste. Other restaurants were selling their coffee at substantially lower temperatures. Coffee served at home is generally 135 to 140 degrees. The consultant admitted that he never evaluated the safety ramifications at this temperature. Further, McDonald's quality assurance manager testified that the company actively enforced a requirement that coffee be held in the pot at 185 degrees, plus or minus five degrees. The quality assurance manager also testified that a burn hazard exists with any food substance served at 140 degrees or above. Last, he admitted that McDonald's coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into Styrofoam cups, was not fit for human consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat. Even after admitting that burns would occur, but the quality assurance manager testified at trial that McDonald's had no intention of reducing the “holding temperature” of its coffee.

A scholar in thermodynamics applied to human skin burns also testified about safe temperatures. He told the jury that liquids that measure 180 degrees will cause a full thickness burn to human skin in two to seven seconds. Other testimony showed that as the temperature decreases toward 155 degrees, the extent of the burn relative to that temperature decreases exponentially. Thus, if Stella’s spill had involved coffee at 155 degrees, the liquid would have cooled and given her time to avoid serious burns. McDonald's asserted that customers buy coffee on their way to work or home, intending to consume it there. However, the company’s own research showed that customers intend to consume the coffee immediately while driving. McDonald's also argued that consumers know coffee is hot and that its customers want it that way. The company admitted its customers were unaware that they could suffer third degree burns from the coffee. McDonald's also admitted that a statement on the side of the cup was not a “warning,” just a “reminder” as the location of the writing would not warn customers of the hazard.

The jury decided $200,000 would compensate Stella for medical bills and the painful treatments she was forced to endure. This amount was reduced to $160,000 because the jury also thought Stella was 20 percent at fault for the spill. The jury also told McDonald's to pay $2.7 million in punitive damages. Punitive damages are very rare. Punitive damages are meant to punish a company for reckless conduct.  $2.7 million equaled about two days of McDonald's coffee sales.

After the verdict, an investigation found that the temperature of coffee at the local Albuquerque McDonald's had dropped to 158 degrees Fahrenheit. The trial court subsequently reduced the punitive award to $480,000 — or three times compensatory damages — even though the judge called McDonald's conduct reckless, callous and willful.

No one will ever know the final ending to this case. Despite the fact that this case was litigated in public and subjected to extensive media reporting, McDonald's required Stella to agree to a secret settlement. This prevented Stella and her attorneys from discussing anything about McDonald's conduct. Secret settlements should not be condoned. The civil justice system can be successful at completely eliminating some dangers to the public (for example, children's pajamas are no longer flammable). Secret settlements cause the opposite effect - only serving the purpose of helping a company hide the dangers of its bad conduct from the public.

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