Liebeck v. McDonalds Restaurants: The Original Coffee Product Liability Case

James M. Dedman, IV

Back in 1994, Stella Liebeck v. McDonalds Restaurants became one of the most talked about lawsuits in American history. To this day, that New Mexico state court case is an essential component of any tort reform debate or discussion of litigation lore.  At that time, and to this day, the thought of a fast food drive-thru customer spilling coffee on herself in her vehicle and later recovering a punitive verdict of $2.7 million was simply too much for many members of the public. As we all know, the case became fodder for late night talk show hosts and later, Internet commentators, most of whom were relatively unfamiliar with the basic facts of the case. Over the years, the case has become part cautionary tale, part urban legend, and individuals seeking confirmation of even the most basic facts of the case have encountered great difficulty (in part because the case resulted in no formal appellate opinion setting forth its factual and procedural background).

In recent years, the trial lawyers, initially put on the defensive by the verdict and its ensuing publicity, have attempted to rehabilitate the reputation of the case, using the severity of Ms. Liebeck’s physical injuries as evidence of the lawsuit’s purported merit. Two years ago, trial lawyer turned filmmaker Susan Saladoff released Hot Coffee, an editorial documentary using the Liebeck case, and other cases of note, as examples of the purported evils of tort reform. To some degree, the success of the documentary, and the editorial coverage thereof, has prompted the public to rethink some of the issues of this case.  In said documentary, Saladoff stressed the McDonald’s policy of serving 180 to 190 degree coffee which, when spilled, could result in second and third degree burns like those Liebeck sustained more than two decades ago. However, reviewing the basic facts of the case and the legal issues in play, it is apparent, even two decades later, that the Liebeck case was questionable at best, frivolous at worst.

Critics tend to think of the Liebeck case as one primarily involving contributory negligence, as Ms. Liebeck spilled the coffee into her lap when the cup was in her control as she sat in the passenger seat of her grandson’s automobile in the restaurant’s parking lot. Here’s how the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association, presumably no foe of such suits, describes her conduct in its own literature: “Because the car had no cupholders and a slanted dash, Stella put the cup between her knees, trying to get the lid off. The cup flipped backward, dumping the scalding liquid into her lap. The sweatpants she was wearing held the heat from the coffee.” (The Wall Street Journal reported in 1994 that the spill occurred “while [Ms. Liebeck was] removing the lid to add cream and sugar.”) Although Saladoff and the plaintiffs’ bar attempt to mitigate Liebeck’s negligence by correcting the myth that Liebeck was driving while drinking the coffee, the fact that Liebeck precariously placed the cup between her knees certainly suggests contributory negligence. However, Liebeck is, at its essence, a product liability case. The plaintiff’s Amended Complaint described the coffee in question as “unreasonably dangerous because it was excessively hot.” Further, the plaintiff alleged in her pleadings that “the coffee was defectively manufactured, served in a container that had design defects, and the coffee itself was manufactured defectively due to its excessive heat; further, the container that it was sold in had no warnings, or had a lack of warnings, rendering the product defectively marketed.” Counsel for McDonalds, in some of its pleadings, dismissively noted that “[f]irst-person accounts by sundry women whose nether regions have been scorched by McDonalds’ coffee might well be worthy of Oprah.” Finding Liebeck sympathetic and McDonalds insufficiently concerned about the matter, the jury agreed with the plaintiff, finding for her on her claims of product defect, breach of implied warranty, and breach of the implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose (although also finding Liebeck herself was 20 percent at fault). The $200,000 compensatory verdict was reduced by $40,000 as a result of the comparative fault finding, and the $2.9 million punitive award was later reduced to $480,000 in response to post-trial motions.

The central issue was whether hot coffee, which by its very nature is hot, is an unreasonably dangerous and defective product because of its temperature. More specifically, the case concerned whether coffee served at 180-190 degrees is so hot that it makes the coffee itself unreasonably dangerous and defective. Shortly after the trial, The Wall Street Journal reported that McDonalds’ internal manuals at the time–produced in the litigation— indicated that “its coffee must be brewed at 195 to 205 degrees and held at 180 to 190 degrees for optimal taste.” In a 1994 post-trial letter to the National Law Journal, Ms. Liebeck’s attorney, plaintiff’s lawyer Reed Morgan, argued that “McDonalds Corp sold its coffee at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit by corporate specification. McDonalds coffee, spilled, could cause full-thickness burns (third degree to the muscle/fatty tissue layer) in 2 to 7 seconds.” Contemporary media reports suggested that the coffee was approximately 165 to 170 degrees at the time of the spill, indicating that it had cooled somewhat between the time it was served and the time it had spilled. At the time, McDonalds argued: “There could be no doubt that potable coffee is, by its very nature, hot. The evidence in this case establishes there is nothing unique about McDonalds coffee in this regard: although billions of cups of coffee are consumed without incident every year, all restaurateurs served coffee at temperatures high enough to cause third degree burns under certain conditions.”

Thus, the issue became whether hot coffee, if served at a certain temperature capable of causing serious injury, is unreasonably dangerous as a result of that potential for injury. Of course, it all came down to expert testimony. The plaintiff’s medical expert, Dr. Charles Baxter, strayed into coffee temperature issues and testified that coffee could not be consumed at 180 degrees. Rather, he opined, the optimal temperature was somewhere between 155 to 160 degrees. In response, the defense secured the testimony of Dr. Turner Osler, who countered that even if the coffee in question had been served at a temperature as low as 130 degrees then Ms. Liebeck would have sustained the very same injuries. Thus, if Dr. Osler was to be believed, even if McDonalds had lowered the temperature to the range that the plaintiff’s expert recommended, Ms. Liebeck would still have sustained the very same injuries. However, Dr. Baxter testified that at lower temperatures the coffee would take longer to cause the types of burns at issue, and thus, a lower serving temperature would be ideal. (Testimony also suggested that Ms. Liebeck, as an elderly woman with thinner skin, may have been more susceptible to the burn injuries at issue, and additionally, the fact that she did not remove her clothing may have exacerbated the burns).

Curiously, the warnings issue receives little attention these days. Although Liebeck alleged that “the container that it was sold in had no warnings, or had a lack of warnings,” the very cup at issue is prominently displayed—with its “Plaintiff’s Exhibit 44” sticker still affixed—on both the website and the promotional poster of the Hot Coffee film. However, in the very same pictures, it is clear that the cup advises in orange text: “Caution: Contents Hot.”

The fact of the matter is that hot coffee is served, and enjoyed, hot, just as hot food is. Interestingly, today, on its website, the National Coffee Association advises that “[y]our brewer should maintain a water temperature between 195–205 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal extraction” and that “[i]f it will be a few minutes before it will be served, the temperature should be maintained at 180–185 degrees Fahrenheit.” Even in 1994, the National Coffee Association confirmed that McDonalds’ serving temperatures were within industry guidelines (and many restaurateurs have found that their customers complain if they lower the temperature of their coffee). Just because a product can cause serious injury when handled negligently, does not mean that the product is unreasonably dangerous when and if used properly.

For more on the case, please see the Abnormal Use law blog’s “Stella Liebeck McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case FAQ.”

Feature Article, DRI Today, April 15, 2014