On February 27, 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck from Albuquerque, New Mexico ordered a 49-cent cup of coffee from the drive-through window of a local McDonald’s restaurant located at 5001 Gibson Boulevard S.E. Liebeck was in the passenger’s seat of her grandson’s Toyota, which did not have cup holders, and her grandson Chris parked the car so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Liebeck placed the coffee cup between her knees and pulled the far side of the lid toward her to remove it. In the process, she spilled the entire cup of coffee on her lap. Liebeck was wearing cotton sweatpants; they absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin, scalding her thighs, buttocks, and groin. The coffee was heated to somewhere between 180 to 190 degrees. Thus begain the story of the infamous McDonald's hot coffee case. Our personal injury attorney attempts to walk you through what really went down.
A Real Issue or Tort Reform Propaganda?
We have all heard the McDonald's hot coffee case story about the “greedy, old lady (Liebeck) who got rich suing McDonald’s for her coffee being too hot.” Doesn’t everyone know that coffee is hot? How can we allow a person to get rich from such a stupid and frivolous lawsuit? How stupid is it that McDonald’s has to put a warning label on their cups that their coffee is hot? You can either read further to know “the rest of the story” or continue to accept the “tort reform propaganda” that corporate America has pushed down our throats?
What Really Went Down in the McDonald's Hot Coffee Case
Liebeck was taken to the hospital after the incident, where it was determined that she had suffered third-degree burns on 6% of her skin and lesser burns over 16%. It is easy enough to find photographs of the burns to Ms. Liebeck’s legs and groin area online, but I must warn you that these photographs are graphic and are not for the weak of heart.
She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent skin grafting. During this period, Liebeck lost 20 pounds (nearly 20% of her body weight), reducing her to 83 pounds. Two years of medical treatment followed this terrible ordeal.
On June 27, 2011, HBO premiered a documentary about tort reform problems titled Hot Coffee. The documentary is very informative and intriguing. I would encourage anyone reading this article to view it and form their own judgment. The documentary is available for free on amazon prime. You can see the trailer here.
At one point in the film, the lawyer for Ms. Liebeck is deposing a quality control executive with McDonald’s. The attorney for Ms. Liebeck first asks this gentleman whether he would suggest that people should consume coffee when it’s 180-190 degrees. He brazenly states that no one should even think about drinking coffee when it’s that hot because it could cause terrible burns to the throat. Next, he is asked how he feels about the hundreds and hundreds of burn incidents that have taken place due to McDonald’s extremely hot coffee. Incredibly he declares that he is proud of those numbers, because he thought they would actually be much higher.
During the trial it was revealed that McDonald’s knew that heating their coffee to this temperature would be dangerous, but they did it anyways because it would save them money. When you serve coffee that is too hot to drink, it will take much longer for a person to drink their coffee, which means that McDonald’s will not have to give out as many free refills of coffee. This policy by the fast food chain is the reason the jury awarded $2.7 million dollars in punitive damages in the McDonald's hot coffee case. Punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant for their inappropriate business practice.
Similarities to the Ford Pinto Fiasco
We saw this to a much more serious degree when Ford decided to continue selling the Pinto even when they knew that it could blow up. Ford figured that it would be cheaper to pay out damages to the families of people who were hurt or killed when their Pinto blew up than it would be to recall the vehicles. An inner company memo was found and published by Mother Jones Magazine. The memo outlined the following:
- Ford expected sales of 11 million Pintos, and a total cost per unit to modify the fuel tank of $11, a recall would have cost Ford $121 million.
- But, using mathematical formulations of a probable 2,100 accidents that might result in 180 burn deaths, 180 seriously burned victims, and 2,100 burned-out vehicles, the “unit cost” per accident, assuming an out-of-court settlement, came to a probable $200,000 per death, $67,000 per serious injury, and $700 per burned-out vehicle, leaving a grand total of $49.53 million.
- Allowing the accidents to occur represented a net savings of nearly $70 million.
- Therefore, a human life was mathematically proven to be worth less than an $11 part.
Ford continued to build and market the Pinto without modifications until news of the memo broke.
The McDonald's Hot Coffee Case Wouldn't Have Happened in Maryland
Of note, the McDonald’s hot coffee case would have never happened in Maryland. Ms. Liebeck wouldn’t have received one penny to compensate her for her terrible and disfiguring injuries suffered at the hands of McDonald’s. The great state of Maryland is one of the last few remaining dinosaurs who have refused to adopt the concept of comparative negligence. Instead, Maryland has held fast to the arcane, outdated, and unjust concept of contributory negligence. In its most basic form, contributory negligence says that if you are even 1% at fault in contributing to an accident or injury, then you will get northing for your injuries, no matter how terrible they may be. The majority of states follow the concept of comparative negligence which says that if you are 1 percent at fault then you will still be compensated for your injuries, but your total award will be reduced in value by 1 percent.
In the McDonald’s hot coffee case, Ms. Liebeck was found to be partially to blame for her injuries due to the way she removed the lid from her coffee cup. Her award was reduced by the percentage that the jury found her to blame for her injuries. In Maryland, because she was partly to blame for her injuries, she would have been barred from recovering anything for her terrible injuries. Not only that, but Maryland also has a cap for non-economic damages, i.e. pain and suffering. The legislature in the state of Maryland has told us that no matter how much you suffer from your injuries, the value of your life cannot be greater than $800,000. That sounds like a lot of money, but is that really all we think our life is worth.
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