“Hot Coffee at McDonald’s”

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To aficionados of the bean, there’s nothing like a piping-hot cup of java to get the day off to a good start, and nothing more insipid than lukewarm coffee. That’s what McDonald’s thought, anyway—until it learned differently, the hard and expensive way, when seventy-nine-year-old Stella Liebeck successfully sued the company after she was burned by a spilled cup of hot coffee that she’d bought at the drivethrough window of her local McDonald’s. The jury awarded her $160,000 in compensatory damages and a whopping $2.7 million in punitive damages. After the trial judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, she and McDonald’s settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.105

Unlike the outcome of most other lawsuits, the hot-coffee verdict received nationwide attention, most of it unfavorable. To many ordinary people, the case epitomized the excesses of a legal system out of control. If hot coffee is dangerous, what’s next: soft drinks that are too cold? To conservatives, the case represented the all-too-familiar failure of consumers to take responsibility for their own conduct, to blame business rather than themselves for their injuries. More policy-oriented pundits used the case as an occasion to call for reform of product liability law—in particular, to make winning frivolous suits more difficult and to restrict the punitive awards that juries can hand down.

However, those who examined the facts more closely learned that the Liebeck case was more complicated than it first appeared. For one thing, Liebeck suffered third-degree burns on her thighs and buttocks that were serious enough to require skin grafting and leave permanent scars. After her injury, she initially requested $10,000 for medical expensesand an additional amount for pain and suffering. When McDonald’s refused, she went to court, asking for $300,000. Lawyers for the company argued in response that McDonald’s coffee was not unreasonably hot and that Liebeck was responsible for her own injuries

The jury saw it differently, however. First, McDonald’s served its coffee at 185 degrees Fahrenheit, significantly hotter than home-brewed coffee. The jury was persuaded that coffee at that temperature is both undrinkable and more dangerous than a reasonable consumer would expect. Second, before Liebeck’s accident, the company had received over seven hundred complaints about burns from its coffee. In response to the complaints, McDonald’s had in fact put a warning label on its cups and designed a tighter-fitting lid for them. Ironically, the new lid was part of the problem in the Liebeck case because she had held the coffee cup between her legs in an effort to pry it open.

Although the jury found that Liebeck was 20 percent responsible for her injuries, it also concluded that McDonald’s had not done enough to warn consumers. The jury’s $2.7 million punitive-damage award was intended, jurors later said, to send a message to fast-food chains. Although the judge reduced the award—equivalent to only about two days’ worth of coffee sales for McDonald’s—he called McDonald’s conduct “willful, wanton, reckless, and callous.”

Discussion Questions

1. Is hot coffee so dangerous, as the jury thought? Should a reasonable consumer be expected to know that coffee can burn and to have assumed this risk? Is a warning label sufficient? Is our society too protective of consumers these days, or not protective enough?

2. In serving such hot coffee, did McDonald’s act in a morally responsible way? What ideals, obligations, and effects should it have taken into consideration?

3. McDonald’s claims that most consumers would prefer to have their coffee too hot rather than not hot enough. After all, if it’s too hot, they can always wait a minute before drinking it. Suppose this is true. How does it affect McDonald’s responsibilities? Given that McDonald’s serves millions of cups of coffee every week, how important are a few hundred complaints about its coffee being too hot?

4. Was Liebeck only 20 percent responsible for her injuries? Do you agree with the amount of compensatory and punitive damages that the jury awarded her? If not, what would have been a fairer monetary award?

5. Should juries be permitted to award punitive damages in product liability cases? If so, should there be a limit to what they can award? Is it right for a jury to award punitive damages against one company in order to send a message to a whole industry?

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