In 1992 Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was sitting in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car when a cup of coffee she bought at McDonald’s burned her badly. This case received a lot of publicity and became an excellent example of reckless lawsuits that caused huge financial losses.
A closer look at the facts and the law shows that the judge and jury have probably made a good decision. Liebeck, 79, at the time of the incident, was injured when his grandson stopped to add cream and sugar to the coffee. She put the coffee cup between her legs and tried to remove the lid. Unfortunately, she spilled all the liquid on her lap. The jogging pants Liebeck was wearing collected the hot liquid and held it close to the skin of her thighs. He suffered burns to the thickness of his thighs, buttocks, groin, and genitalia, which the surgeon described as representing 6% of the total body area.
Liebeck was hospitalized for eight days to treat burns. He had to undergo debridement and local wound care. The entire thickness of the wound areas had to be covered with skin grafts. Liebeck filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s and was apparently willing to pay $ 20,000, but McDonald’s made a strategic decision to address the claim. It turned out to be a bad business decision for McDonald’s, but a good one for the rest of the public.
Who was at the fault?
McDonald’s admitted that it kept the temperature of the coffee between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit. They used this temperature based on a consultant’s advice that this was the area needed for the best flavor. McDonald’s initially claimed that customers plan to consume coffee after work or at home. At this point, the coffee would have cooled. However, internal McDonald’s polls have shown that most customers still drink coffee in the car.
McDonald’s admitted that it had not investigated the dangers associated with these high temperatures. McDonald’s argued that its customers knew the coffee was hot and that they wanted to do it. There was a statement next to the mug, but McDonald’s agreed that it was just a “reminder” that the coffee was hot. The writing on the mug couldn’t be a real warning, and McDonald’s admitted.
McDonald’s also admitted that customers were unaware that the coffee served could cause full-thickness burns if it came in contact with the skin. A major advantage of the trial came when a post-trial investigation found that the temperature of the cafe at McDonald’s in Albuquerque had dropped to 158 degrees Fahrenheit, a number that is still dangerous but less likely to cause injury in the event of a spill leading. Maybe the system worked. A high cash price product liability case resulted in a much safer product. The case was not so joyous.