A personal reflection on Liebeck v McDonalds

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Liebeck V. McDonalds: An Annoyance The McDonald’s hot coffee case is an event that most Americans claim to know about but many actually are unware of the facts. When I first heard about this lawsuit, I was working in a restaurant that ironically served a lot of coffee. I was eavesdropping on the server line and overheard a fellow employee’s comment, “did you hear about the lady who sued McDonald’s because she spilt coffee on herself, apparently she won a bunch of money; I wish I could just go around suing people because I’m stupid.” Fortunately, for me, I didn’t care at the time to hear much of their story, nor did I care about the story at all. As the years went by, I didn’t hear much about it anymore until I stumbled across a documentary called “Hot Coffee” on Netflix. It was the first lawsuit mentioned in this documentary along with a few others that pointed out the downside of tort reform. The McDonald’s case, as I soon learned was nothing as my co-workers had mentioned, but of course, this was years ago. I was certain that by 2014, surely the facts of the McDonald’s hot coffee case had been distributed and everyone knew it was indeed not a frivolous lawsuit. I was proven quite wrong when just last week, a co-worker of mine was rattling on about her idea of “stupid” lawsuits and she mentioned “well I suppose you can sue anybody these days, I mean you can even sue McDonalds over hot coffee!” Upon that note, I had no choice but to inform her that the McDonald’s case was indeed a legitimate suit. She preceded to say, “Coffee is supposed to be hot, so what then, can you sue for cold coffee?” Technically, she wasn’t wrong, coffee is supposed to hot, but then again, coffee isn’t supposed to cause third degree burns either, or hospitalize you for eight days. My annoyance a little pushed responded to my co-worker, “I don’t see why not, I suppose if cold coffee was to cause you serious physical injury, then why not!” Moving on, as I proceeded my research I learned more shocking facts of this world wide known lawsuit, as well as how it became so distorted. It all started in Albuquerque, New Mexico on Feb 27th, 1992 when 79 year old Grandma Liebeck ordered a .49 cent cup of coffee from a McDonald’s drive through. Little did she know that this .49 cent cup of coffee would end up costing her $11,000. She was sitting in the passenger's seat when her grandson, Chris, parked the car in the McDonald’s parking lot so she could add sugar and cream to her coffee. She placed the cup between her knees and began pulling the lid towards her to remove it. In the process of doing so, she spilled the entire cup on her lap. She was wearing cotton sweatpants which is a fabric prone to absorb great amount of liquid quickly; in Liebeck’s very unlucky situation, it was scalding coffee. She sat in the hot liquid for over 90 seconds, burning her thighs, buttocks, and groin. Her grandson immediately drove her to the hospital where it was then discovered that she had obtained third-degree burns on six percent of her skin. She was hospitalized for eight days, underwent skin grafting, and later debridement treatments (Cain). During this time, she also lost a lot of weight bringing her down to a very scary 83 pounds. In addition to her treatments at the hospital, she faced two more years of medical treatment (Cain). Liebeck’s hospital bills became more than a little difficult to handle and that’s when she wrote a letter asking McDonald's to cover her out-of-pocket expenses, which amounted to $11,000. This included her daughter's lost wages for the time she took off work to care for Liebeck during her three week recovery at home. McDonald’s responded with a refusal. It was during this time that Liebeck felt no choice but to seek out Reed Morgan, a Texas attorney. He had dealt with another McDonald's case concerning a burn victim as well (Levenson). That particular case in 1986 involved a woman who received third degree burns from purchasing McDonald’s coffee, which resorted in a settlement of $27,000. McDonald’s had stated during that case that they "had no plans to turn down the heat." Before a suit was even filed, Liebeck once again asked McDonald's to pay for her medical expenses, now including her pain and suffering in the amount of $90,000. McDonalds offered only $800. Finally, in 1993, a products liability lawsuit was filed in New Mexico District Court stating that McDonald's was responsible of "gross negligence" for selling coffee that was "unreasonably dangerous" and “defectively manufactured.” Punitive damages were also sought based on the allegations that McDonald's acted with “conscience indifference for the safety of its customers” (Levenson). During the pretrial, in January 21, 1994 McDonald's moved for summary judgment, but the motion was denied. On July 29th, a hearing was conducted on Liebeck’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. The Parties agreed that the burns were indeed caused by the coffee. On July 29th in a letter decision, Judge Scott denied Liebeck’s motion as to liability (Dedman). Morgan, Liebeck’s attorney, along with the suggestion of a mediator, offered to settle for $225,000, but McDonald’s refused and ultimately decided to go to trial (Ruschmann). The trial took place on August 17th 1994 before Judge Robert H. Scott. Liebeck's attorneys argued that McDonald's coffee was "defective" in a sense that it was too hot and probable to cause more serious injury than any other coffee sold at different restaurants. They also discovered that McDonald's training manual required their coffee to be brewed at 195 to 205 degrees Fahrenheit and then held and served at 180-190 degree Fahrenheit. They debated that coffee should not be served hotter than 140 degrees (Ruschmann). Baxter, an expert in thermodynamics as applied to skin burns, stated that liquids at 190 degrees can cause third degree burns to the skin in two to three seconds, if at 180 degrees it can cause the same burns in 12 to 15 seconds, and at 160 degrees it can cause burns within 20 seconds (Cain). Their intentions were to prove that if McDonald’s coffee had been just a little less scalding, it would had added critical seconds to Liebeck's response time. This would have allowed her to get out the car and remove her clothes within time to prevent serious burns (Cain). Unfortunately, in Liebeck's situation, it was estimated that she only had about 2 to 3 seconds before third degree burns began setting. A project performed by a law student working for Liebeck's lawyers took temperatures of coffee at other local restaurants and found that McDonald's coffee was at least 20 degrees warmer (Ruschmann). Witnesses testified that between 1982 and 1992, McDonald's had received at least 700 reports of customers being burned by hot coffee; some incidents involving third degree burns (Cain). McDonald's had been sued countless times over coffee burns and had spent over $500,000 in settling these cases, including the 1986 case that Morgan himself was part of. He indeed questioned McDonald’s as to why they have not considered lowing their coffee temperature. McDonald's fought back with their own experts. They argued that coffee served at 130 degrees could cause third degree burns as well, therefore serving coffee at 180 or 190 degrees was irrelevant. Also, a safety consultant hired by the company testified that hot coffee burns were "statistically insignificant" and that 700 burn complaints out of 24million cups over 10 years was a good report (Levenson). A McDonald’s executive admitted that the company choose not to warn its customers of the possible burns because "there were more serious dangers in the restaurants." In addition, they admitted that their coffee was not "fit for consumption" because it would cause injuries to the mouth and throat if drunk at a temperature of 185 degrees. They added that due to Liebeck's age, the burns were worse than usual because older skin is more vulnerable to serious injuries (Cain). During McDonald's closing argument, they pointed the blame on Liebeck for thoughtlessly placing the cup of obviously hot coffee between her legs and not removing her clothes quick enough. These statements offended jurors, one even saying, "There was a person behind every number and I don’t think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that" (qtd. Ruschmann). They were also not convinced by McDonald's failed attempt at warning customers with a "caution: contents Hot!" label on the cup (Levenson). At the beginning of the trial, Jerry Goens wondered why he was deciding a hot coffee-spill case; after seeing all the evidence, he quickly changed his mind. In the end, the jurors who initially felt insulted and inconvenienced by Liebeck's "frivolous" lawsuit were now more upset at McDonald’s unsympathetic attitude toward victims (Levenson). One Juror even pushing for damages totaling almost $10,000 (Levenson). Even the trial judge had no problems with the jury's verdict. After 7 days of trial, the jury would have to decide if McDonald’s would be held liable, thus restricting people from what they really want, "good hot coffee" (Levenson). The jury unanimously found McDonald’s liable. They sided with Liebeck on her claims “of product defect, breach of implied warranty, and breach of the implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose” (Dedman). The jury awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages, but because they also found her 20% at fault for her own injuries, her award was reduced to $160,000 (Ruschmann). The Jury awarded 2.7 million in punitive damages (two days' worth of worldwide coffee sales), in which the Judge later reduced to $480,000. Judge Scott commented that the amount was justified due to "willful, wanton, reckless, and what the courts find were callous" conduct on McDonald's part (Ruschmann). Liebeck’s total award was $640,000. McDonalds responded 'We knew the initial damages awarded were excessive and unjustified, and yesterday the Judge acknowledged that and agreed, but we feel they are excessive and we will appeal the decision" (Dedman). Judge Scott denied McDonald's motion for new trial on September 16, 1994 and ordered the parties to a post-verdict settlement conference. On November 28th, the parties finally ended up settling for a confidential amount. Those knowledgeable of the amount Liebeck received, agreed that the amount was far less than what the jury had awarded her. McDonald’s had made some changes since Liebeck's lawsuit by adding the warning sign "Coffee, tea, and hot chocolate are VERY HOT!' on their drive through windows. Their hot beverage lids are also now label with the words "HOT! HOT! HOT!" (Cain). Myself, as a very admin coffee drinker, stop by McDonalds frequently for coffee has also noticed that McDonalds employee will most instantly and pushily ask if I need cream and sugar in my coffee. If I do, they will then proceed to do it for me. Now whether or not they do it because its part of their role in providing great customer service, I’m almost certain that some of it has to do with avoiding another hot coffee lawsuit. So how exactly did this case get so misleading? Well, as a legal doctrine, the case of Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants has no precedential value. It was a single jury's verdict that never made it to the appellate level (Levenson). The facts were not properly distributed and citizens just choose to hear what they wanted. The media too had a great role in distorting this story. At first leaving out a few facts, and then soon only leaving three facts such as, “Woman spills coffee on herself, Woman sues McDonalds, and Woman wins 2.7 million dollars.” In addition, huge corporations conduct large public relations campaigns to distort the truth in an attempt to limit people's knowledge of the court system. They turned this particular case into a “witch hunt” for tort reform, confusing the media and the general public into thinking Liebeck was the bad guy in this story (Hot Coffee Case). With the public assuming the truth lies within these big corporations, they tend to agree with them, lacking the knowledge that a tort reform will actually make it more difficult for them to file a lawsuit, obtain a jury trial, and places a cap on their damages, if and when they are injured by these companies (Lane). In addition to the Liebeck vs McDonald’s Restaurant case, there are other cases across the United States that involve injuries from hot coffee. You’d also be interested to hear that most of them end with the burn victim at a lost. An example is the case of Steven Olliver vs Heavenly Bagels, Inc. from the Supreme Court of New York in 2001. Having similar circumstances as the McDonald’s case, Olliver purchased his cup of coffee from Heavenly Bagels and accidently spills it on himself while driving in his car. The coffee was actually put in a bag in which he had placed between his legs. He suffered second degree burns and sued the company. Heavenly Bagels argued that there was no defect in the manufacture or maintence of their coffee machine, and that they had no duty to warn the customer of the dangers of hot coffee. A service document showed that the brewing temperature was 194 degrees, but “industry standards required a brewing temperature of 200 degrees”. Under New York precedent, the fact that “the coffee was hot enough to cause injury if not properly handled did not mean that it was defective or negligently served”. Coffee, a “product by its very nature had a dangerous attribute and liability was imposed only when the product had an attribute not reasonably contemplated by the purchaser or was unreasonably dangerous for its intended purpose” (Olliver v. Heavenly Bagels). The court held that Olliver failed to provide evidence for which the jury could distinguish the coffee to be unreasonably hot, essentially, his second degree burns were not sufficient. Another example of a hot coffee case is Christopher Nadel vs Burger King. This case made it to the Court of Appeals of Ohio in 1997. Nadel and his family stopped by the Burger King drive through and order some food along with two cups of coffee. Initially there was an accident and the hot coffee spilt all over everyone sitting in the vehicle including Nadel’s young son. They filed an action in “breach of warranty, products liability, and negligence” against the franchisor and franchisee of Burger King. The court granted the motions of both defendants for summary, which after the Nadels appealed. The court affirmed the grant of summary judgment to Burger King for of “breach of warranty, premises liability, and negligent infliction of emotional distress”. But, Summary judgment was reversed as to the “products liability and punitive damage claims” because of fact issues as to whether thecoffeethat burned Nadel’s son was defective. The court held that it was up to a jury to decide whether second degree burns resulting from spilled coffee was an unforeseen danger or common knowledge. The court also decided that a jury would be better able to determine whether the 175 degree coffee purchased from Burger King was hotter than what Nadels would have expected, and whether the risks of this hot coffee outweighed its benefits. Here we have three different hot coffee cases with all different decisions. Liebeck’s case did not make it to an appellate level but the decisions of appellate courts across the country suggest that Stella Liebeck would have likely lost if the appeal had gone forward as these last two case proved. As of 2014 ho Works Cited Cain, Kevin G. "And Now the Rest of the Story...The McDonald's Coffee Lawsuit."Journal of Consumer & Commercial LawJuly (2007): 14-19. Web. Christopher Nadel, by and through his next friend, Brenda Nadel, his natural mother, Evelyn Nadel, and Paul Nadel v. Burger King Corporation and Emil, Inc. Court of Appeals of Ohio. 21 May 1997.LexisNexis Academic. Web. 4 Dec. 2014. Dedman, Jim. "The Stella Liebeck McDonald's Hot Coffee Case FAQ". AbnormalUse.com. Gallivan, White & Boyd, P.A. Attorneys at Law. 25 January 2011. Web. 4 Dec. 2014. Lane, Justinian. "What Is Tort Reform, Anyway? A Guide for the Average Citizen". WhatisTortReform.com. N.d. Web. 4 Dec. 2014. Levenson, Barry M.Habeas Codfish: Reflections on Food and the Law. Madison: U of Wisconsin, 2001. Print. N.a. "Hot Coffee Case."ForThePeople.com. Morgan & Morgan, 11 July 2012. Web. 4 Dec. 2014. Olliver v. Heavenly Bagels, Inc. Et Al. Supreme Court of New York Nassau County. 26 July 2001.LexisNexis Academic. Web. 4 Dec. 2014. Rami, Zachary. "Courts Split as to Whether Consumers Injure by Hot Coffee Can Seek Recovery."Loyola Consumer Law Review6th ser. 10.4 (1999): n. pag. Web. Ruschmann, Paul.Tort Reform. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2006. Print.
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