Liebeck v. McDonalds 1994

The case of Liebeck vs. McDonald’s, also known as the McDonald’s case is one of the most controversial tort cases, which according to many did not end with victory either on the part of the plaintiff or of the strong defense, but rather on the time’s growing debates on tort laws and how courts deal and resolve tort cases.  It may sound ridiculous but this case started with a simple cup of coffee.  This is not an ordinary case wherein one could easily which party has been negligent.  In fact, it can be said that both parties have been negligent and have their own faults of the incident that gave rise to the dispute.  In important to order to understand the case better, it is important to know the facts of the case and how the court decided.

The Facts:

This case was filed by Stella Liebeck of New Mexico, who, in February 1992, while in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car, was severely burned by McDonalds’ (The Actual facts About the McDonald’s Coffee Case, n.d.) coffee after it spilled on her legs, groin and buttocks causing third-degree burns (Bracken, 2005).  From an ordinary perspective, one can view this as an ordinary scenario in restaurants and coffee shops and among coffee drinkers, especially those who consume their coffee in moving vehicles.

But this is not the case in the McDonald’s case. The case was anchored on the claim that McDonald’s have been negligent and that their coffee has been extremely hot beyond the normal temperatures of coffee served in other coffee shops and restaurants.  According to the article, The Actual Facts About the McDonalds’ Coffee Case, “McDonalds’ coffee was not only hot, it was scalding—capable of almost instantaneous destruction of skin, flesh and muscle”.

Ms. Liebeck, was at that time 79 years old and ordered coffee from the local McDonald’s which in turn served the hot coffee in a Styrofoam cup at the drive-through window.  After receiving the order, his grandson allegedly pulled his car forward to give way to other customers and again stopped to allow Ms. Liebeck to add creamer and sugar to her coffee.  In order to do this, she held the cup with her legs so that she may be able to open the lid and add in the creamer and sugar.  However, as she removed the lid, the hot content poured to her lap causing the complained damages.

This is as opposed to the claim that the car was in motion and the Liebeck was driving the car when the incident happened (The Actual Facts About the McDonald’s case, n.d.).  With this incident, it can be seen that at one point, the Liebeck’s can be said to have been contributors to the accident as what McDonald’s have claimed that Liebeck was the proximate cause of the injuries she sustained.   McDonald’s claimed that it was Liebeck who has been negligent and not them because as customers, they should have known that coffee is hot and they should be extra cautious in handling coffee especially while in a vehicle whether it be in motion or in full stop.
According to the vascular surgeon, Ms. Liebeck suffered full thickness burns at about six percent of her body.  She stayed in the hospital for eight days and underwent skin grafting, debridement treatments.  She now comes to the court for the settlement of her claim for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses as a result of the incident.  However, McDonald’s refused to pay.

In its argument, McDonald’s argued that consumers know coffee is hot and that its customers want it that way.  They however admitted that its customers were unaware that they could suffer third-degree burns from the coffee and that a statement on the side of the cup was not a warning but a reminder since the location of the writing would not warn customers of the hazard (The Actual Facts About the McDonald’s Case, n.d.).
The Issue

The issue in this case is whether or not McDonald’s has been negligent causing the accident complained off making it liable to pay the medical expenses.

Held:

The decision of the court is anchored mainly on tort laws and decided by determining who has been negligent in the incident that caused the harm being complained about.  After trial, the jury ruled in favor of Liebeck awarding her a total of $200,000 in compensatory damages, which however was alter reduced to only $160,000 after a finding of the jury that McDonald’s was not solely responsible for the accident but instead, Liebeck was also 20 percent at fault for the coffee spill (The Actual Facts About the McDonald’s Case, n.d.).

In addition, the jury also awarded some $2.7 million as punitive damages, an amount equal to McDonald’s total sales for two days.  However, the court again lower this punitive award of damages to $480,000 although the judge found McDonald’s to be “reckless, callous, and willful”  (The Actual Facts About the McDonald’s Case, n.d.).

According to Bracken (2005), this ruling of the jury is based upon the determination from the documents presented that Liebeck’s medical bills totaled to about $10,000 due to the injuries she suffered.  Bracken (2005) also explained that this case “is an example of why tort cases should not be merely decided on the simple facts”.  Nevertheless, despite the public nature of the case and the loud news that the incident has made, the public really don’t know how the case really ended as the parties came into a secret settlement whose nature and stipulations have never been revealed to the public at all (The Actual Facts About the McDonald’s Case, n.d.).

As it is provided by Bracken (2005), the McDonald’s case illustrates the implication that cases should not be decided on based solely on the face value of the case because at first instance, it can be easily said that McDonald’s was negligent.  However, reviewing the facts of the case and based on human experience, Liebeck has also been negligent enough that the injuries she suffered cannot be blamed on one party alone.  Her own actions and decisions may have also contributed to the happening of the accident.

She has been negligent in handling the cup of coffee, which a normal person would always believed to be hot and can cause injury even without actually knowing its actual temperature.  This is the reason why I think the jury made a mistake in the case because I consider the incident as purely an accident, which may have only been aggravated by Liebeck’s negligent handling of the hot coffee.  A normal person would always take extra precaution in handling potentially harmful objects.  I consider McDonald’s serving of the hot coffee to be totally acceptable in its aim to provide the best coffee for its customers.

The case of McDonald’s should have been judged after an in-depth investigation to determine McDonald’s alleged negligence for three main reasons (Bracken, 2005).  First, according to Bracken (2005), “this is not the first lawsuit regarding the temperature of McDonald’s coffee illustrating continual negligence by McDonald’s”.  Perhaps one of the strongest arguments against McDonald’s is the fact that there have been previous complaints and similar incidents that may somehow pertain to its negligence in handling its products and in serving them to customers.

Past experiences should have been enough to encourage the company to do something with their hot coffee in order to avoid future similar incidents.  But, this did not happen; McDonald’s seems to have neglected its responsibility to its customers over and above their responsibility to provide the best coffee in town; which is to provide them with safe products as well.

Secondly, “the testimony indicated that McDonald’s coffee is served at between 180 and 190 degrees” (Bracken, 2005).  According to McDonald’s, this temperature is based upon a recommendation that coffee should be served on the above mentioned temperature in order to achieve the best taste that customers crave about (Bracken, 2005).  On this aspect, there can be not much question but only on issues why McDonald’s seems to have neglected the fact that they knowingly know that the extreme temperature of their coffee can cause serious injuries.  They should have at least used more secure packaging than Styrofoam cups.

Thirdly, Bracken (2005) also noted how the articles presented failed to indicate that “McDonald’s attempted to warn consumers of its extreme nature since the company served coffee above the temperature a reasonable nature since the company served coffee above the temperature a reasonable person would expect to receive or consume coffee” (Bracken, 2005). Admittedly, McDonald’s have been negligent on this aspect.  In sum however, after considering all premises, I still believe that the jury erred in ruling in favor of Liebeck and the awards for damages to be excessive.

This case could in fact serve as a precedent for all other future cases wherein complainants may come to court of similar complaints only to extort sum of money from companies like McDonald’s.  Clearly, it can be said that McDonald’s has not been solely accountable and negligent in the case.  Liebeck was also negligent.  Hence, it could have been enough thet the court awarded her sum of money to cover all her medical expenses and small amount in compensatory and punitive damages for the injuries she sustained.  This could have been one way to educate the consumers that they also have the corresponding responsibility to themselves and not to fully pass it on to providers like McDonald’s.

As a restaurant owner, perhaps one of the waking realization that this case brought is the fact that because tort cases are almost always linked to negligent acts, it is important to be very careful in all aspects of safety in the overall operations of the business.  One very obvious mistake on the part of McDonald’s is their failure to give sufficient warning to the customers of the extreme temperature that may cause damage to them.  Incidents like the McDonald’s case could have been avoided if customers have been warned, the least on cup labels or by the restaurant staff that extreme temperature could be harmful.

It is sad to note that although many businesses have genuine intentions to satisfy and to protect their customers; negligent acts, probably by reason of lack of knowledge or foresight seem to cause more controversial issues that lead to the numerous cases decided and being heard in court dockets.

References

Bracken, K.  (2005).  Liebeck v. McDonald’s. Retrieved February 17, 2008, from https://listserv.du.edu/pipermail/torts-russell/2005-August/000010.html

The Actual Facts About the McDonalds’ Coffee Case.  (n.d.).  Retrieved February 17, 2008, from http://www.lectlaw.com/files/cur78.htm