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The McDonald's Hot Coffee Case Revisited

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I was in the Tampa International Airport last week waiting to board a flight, and I stopped in the terminal Starbucks to check my email and grab a cup of coffee.

While I was sitting there, a woman who had just purchased one of those five-step drinks (triple, half, whip something or other) dropped her beverage on the floor as she was getting it off the counter. The piping-hot drink didn’t get on anyone in the accident, but the spill brought the obligatory jokes about the McDonald’s coffee case throughout the crowded store.

It’s been 15 years, and the McDonald’s case still stands as the model for “frivolous” lawsuits. I thought it would be a good time to revisit the facts. The American Association of Justice, a group of attorneys dedicated to protecting the rigths of citizens, provides a thorough look at the case, including a look at the verdict:

- The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. This amount was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Liebeck 20 percent at fault in the spill. The jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which equals about two days of McDonald’s coffee sales.

- Post-verdict 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. Subsequent to remittitur, the parties entered a post-verdict settlement.