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Bob Carroll
Bob Carroll
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The Unfortunate Stain Of The McDonald's Spilled Coffee On All Plaintiffs

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The adjectives most often used to describe the case include outrageous, ridiculous, insane and stupid. But, the evidence established a gross and deliberate violation of the industry safety standard for the temperature of coffee that caused a painful and permanent injury of a customer, an injury that was entirely predictable by McDonald’s.

Try to select a jury from almost any group of citizens and, wham, up pops the infamous McDonald’s coffee spill case. You know the case. Everyone knows the case. Or, thinks he knows the case. And, has a strong opinion about it.

The adjectives most often used to describe the case include outrageous, ridiculous, insane and stupid. The question most often asked is something like, “What were those jurors thinking?” The answer is, of course, that they were thinking about the evidence that had been presented to them by both the plaintiff and the defendant. The evidence established a gross and deliberate violation of the industry safety standard for the temperature of coffee. The result of the deliberate violation was a painful and permanent injury of a customer, an injury that was entirely predictable by McDonald’s.

Here is a short synopisis of the case prepared by Howard Wasserman:

A Controversial McLawsuit: Suing McDonalds for Too-Hot Coffee

In 1992, McDonalds had faced a personal-injury action by seventy-nine-year-old Stella Liebeck — who suffered third-degree burns on her thighs, buttocks, genitals, and groin when a cup of McDonald’s coffee spilled in her lap. She claimed that McDonald’s kept its coffee at too high a temperature, making it a defective, unreasonably unsafe product that caused injuries far more serious than a simple spill otherwise should have.

A jury agreed, awarding her $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages (the trial judge reduced the latter to $480,000).

The parties ultimately settled for an undisclosed amount.

In Distorting the Law: Politics, Media, and the Litigation Crisis, William Haltom and Michael McCann argue that the McDonald’s coffee case “is likely responsible for more of the everyday knowledge about the U.S. justice system than any other lawsuit.” As they note, it has been discussed, referenced, ridiculed, and parodied in every medium, including the famous “The Maestro” episode of the television show Seinfeld.

The case can serve as a cautionary tale for everyone. On one hand, Liebeck became Exhibit A in the case for tort reform, a person many saw as unwilling to accept personal responsibility for her own carelessness: After all, some noted, McDonald’s made the coffee, but she spilled it.

On the other hand, the case also became a rallying point for critics of the mainstream media’s coverage of the judicial system. The media, Haltom and McCann argue, distilled the case to shallow, sensational, and simplistic accounts. It also changed the interpretive narrative from the unreasonably dangerous product case that Liebeck had argued (successfully) to the jury, to a simpler, more visceral, and arguably inaccurate story of a woman receiving a financial windfall for doing something as stupid as holding a cup of coffee in her lap in a moving car.

According to those who are familiar with the evidence that was presented to the jury, McDonald’s admitted that it had intentionally decided to heat its coffee higher than the industry standards with full knowledge that any spilled coffee that happened to land on a customer’s skin would cause a serious burn injury – think of a child’s head or an adult’s lap. McDonald’s apparently felt that really, really hot coffee (hotter than that of any of its competitors) was an economic advantage in the marketplace even if some customers were badly burned. The jury of ordinary citizens apparently concluded that customer safety should come before competitive advantage. Sounds reasonable to me.

The supposed misconduct of the customer who may have placed the coffee in her lap or between her legs as she received it from a McDonald’s window disappears or is diminished when it is viewed in the context of the law of dangerous and defective products (the super hot coffee). If a supplier or manufacturer of a product has reason to believe that there will be a misuse of the product by the consumer there is an obligation to design or manufacture the product to avoid the risk of injury. That takes us right back to the reasons for the industry standards for coffee temperatures in the first place. McDonald’s knew precisedly how to avoid any injury even by a “misuse” of the product.

None of this matters, however, during jury selection at any courthouse throughout the country. The McDonald’s case has stained the thinking of many people regarding any claim for damages. It is shorthand for a supposely broken civil justice system. They raise the coffee spill case to proclaim that they are sick of a system that rewards clever lawyers and greedy plaintiffs who present nonsensical claims. Frankly, I would be sick of such a system, too. However, that is not the system we have in the Unitied States, and the McDonald’s case is not what it has been painted to be.