Suing McDonald’s Over Hot Coffee

            In the case of Liebeck vs. McDonald’s, Stella Liebeck was burned by hot coffee she purchased through the drive thru at McDonald’s and spilled in her lap in the passenger seat, receiving third degree burns which caused her to go into shock and require skin grafts in the hospital (Retro Report, 2015).  Between 1983 and 1992, nearly 700 people claimed that they had been burned by coffee at McDonald’s and yet McDonald’s refused to turn down the temperature (Torres, n.d.).  McDonald’s claimed that they served coffee at 180° F to 190° F to extract the most flavor and to keep coffee hot during customer commutes to work, and that they had no liability in Stella Liebeck’s spilling hot coffee on herself (Retro Report, 2015).  McDonald’s was aware that coffee served at 180° F to 190° F could burn the mouth and throat (Kutner, n.d.).  What is there to protect consumers from products that could send a person to the emergency room?  What can an everyday consumer do to dispute against a giant corporation when they have been wronged?

            Coffee is always served hot, though.  Everyone knows that if they spill coffee on themselves, it could burn them.  McDonald’s had a defense taking this caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) approach, taking no responsibility for Stella Liebeck’s injuries.  After all, the hot coffee is supposed to be hot.  How could a person complain when they spilled hot coffee on themselves?  Obviously, it is the consumer’s responsibility to treat the product with respect and care so as not to burn themselves.  The idea that the responsibility, and thus liability, is completely on the customer is at the core of the caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) concept.  In modern days of consumer protection, caveat emptor no longer applies.  The Uniform Commercial Code (U.C.C.) creates expectations for buyers and sellers that creates a warranty and negates the idea of as-is caveat emptor.

            In the case of products sold to people, there is an implied warranty.  According to Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), implied warranty means that there is an unwritten, unspoken contract between the buyer and seller that the product is fit to be sold, is free of significant defects, and does what it is supposed to do (FindLaw, 2016).  According to the Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Consumer Protection, these types of implied warranties are called “warranty of merchantability,” which means that the product will do what it is intended to do, and the “warranty of fitness,” which means that the product is suitable for an intended use (Federal Trade Commission, 2001).  The idea of this implied warranty means that the seller of a product has a liability and responsibility about a product.  This implied warranty means that McDonald’s is liable for their coffee not to be dangerous for drinking by customers.  Although there is no written warranty, McDonald’s does have some responsibility for its products.

            Stella Liebeck’s claim against McDonald’s was on the basis that the coffee was dangerously hot at 180° F, which is hot enough to cause third-degree burns in less than three seconds (Torres, n.d.).  Her lawyer’s complaint to McDonald’s was that the coffee was “unreasonably dangerous because it was excessively hot” (Dedman, 2014).  This danger is evidenced by Stella’s trip to the emergency room and subsequent skin grafts.  Since the coffee was dangerous, Stella requested three things in her initial complaint to McDonalds prior to litigation:  that McDonald’s check the coffee machine and process at the particular Albuquerque store where she purchased her coffee, that McDonald’s lowers the coffee temperature, and that McDonald’s compensates her for her medical bills (Retro Report, 2015).

            Stella Liebeck’s lawyers believed that McDonald’s was liable because they profited from a product which is dangerous.  Since this product, the hot coffee, can make innocent people into victims, there is a tort of strict product liability (Lau, 2011, p.224).  This means that McDonald’s, selling the hot coffee, is strictly liable for selling the unreasonably dangerous coffee.  Strict liability is interesting because it does not require McDonald’s to be careless of have malicious intent.  Simply because McDonald’s served hot coffee, which was unreasonably dangerous, by strict liability, McDonald’s is liable.  Stella Liebeck’s lawyers attempted to settle twice without litigation, but McDonald’s reacted as though they had no liability at all, which led them to tort in litigation.

            If a person is purchasing a beverage from a restaurant, it should be drinkable.  Beverages that are so hot that they can cause third degree burns are too hot to drink without hurting a person.  Restaurants often serve hot beverages at temperatures between 160° F and 185° F, which is hot enough to cause significant scald burns, even after a brief exposure (Brown, 2008).  This indicates that many restaurants are service their beverages too hot.  Research indicates that customers prefer to drink their coffee at 140° F +/- 15° F (Brown, 2008).  This means that companies could reduce serving temperature to reduce scald risk.  While many people would like their coffee to be hot when they reach the office, others would like to drink their coffee without burning themselves.  It is unreasonable to expect third-degree burns when purchasing coffee.  A food that can cause third-degree burns is unfit for sale to the public and fails the implied warranty of fitness.

            Juror’s found that Liebeck was twenty percent at fault for spilling the coffee on herself and putting the coffee between her knees was contributory negligence (Dedman, 2014).  Noting that McDonald’s was unsympathetic, the jurors decided in favor of Stella Liebeck, deciding that McDonald’s was in breach of implied warranties of merchantability and fitness and gave Ms. Liebeck a defective product (Dedman, 2014).  The implied warranty in the purchase of a cup of coffee was a deciding factor.  The jurors decided to award Liebeck $200,000, which they reduced to $160,000 due to Stella Liebeck’s being twenty percent at fault, in compensatory damages.  The jury awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages, which accounts for two days of McDonald’s coffee revenue (Torres, n.d.).  The judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000 from the jury’s $2.7 million, so Stella Liebeck received nowhere near the $2.7 million that the jury suggested (Torres, n.d.).

            In part, the jury made its decision around the liability created by the implied warranty and the strict liability created by their business processes profiting from unreasonably dangerous hot coffee, which puts people at risk.  In part, the jury made its decision based upon the 700 other complaints about McDonald’s coffee causing burns.  In part, the jury made its decision based upon the photographs of the burns and skin grafts that Stella Liebeck had to go through in the hospital as a result of the coffee burns.  Much of the punitive damages, though, were most likely a result of McDonald’s callous responded and uncaring defense.  Without sympathy, empathy, or care for their customers, McDonald’s looked like it needed a punitive lesson.

            As a result of the Liebeck case, McDonald’s has changed their franchise handbook to lower the temperature of the coffee machines by 10° F in franchise handbooks (Retro Report, 2015).  McDonald’s also started printing “Caution: Contents Hot” on coffee cups (Dryden, 2016).  This case is also a motivator behind the cardboard sleeves and smarter lids served with coffee, and this case has improved the warnings and safety measures made by all coffee-serving establishments, as most companies now server coffee in cups that warn the customer.

            In conclusion, Stella Liebeck’s case against McDonald’s is a lesson in tort and consumer protection.  The case shows that restaurants and corporations are ultimately responsible for their products and liable for damages that they cause simply because they are dangerous.  The danger of the hot coffee makes McDonald’s strictly liable for damages regardless of lack of neglect or ill-will.  Stella Liebeck’s case also woke up the world to the fact that consumers have recourse in court regardless of corporate bullying and bad press.  Although the judge reduced the juror’s punitive decision, the $2.7 million figure sent a strong message to McDonald’s and other companies that they need to be more careful in considering the risks inherent in their products.

References

Brown, F., & Diller, K. R. (2008). Calculating the optimum temperature for serving hot beverages. Burns : journal of the International Society for Burn Injuries, 34(5), 648–654. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.burns.2007.09.012

Dedman, James. (2014). Liebeck v. McDonalds Restaurants: The Original Coffee Product Liability Case. Retrieved from http://www.gwblawfirm.com/liebeck-v-mcdonalds-restaurants-original-coffee-product-liability-case/

Dryden, Dene. (2016). Here’s the story behind the ‘Caution: Contents Hot’ label on your coffee. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/the-story-behind-the-caution-contents-hot-label-2016-10

Federal Trade Commission. (2001). Warranties. Retrieved from https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0252-warranties

FindLaw. (2016). What is an Implied Warranty? Retrieved from https://consumer.findlaw.com/consumer-transactions/what-is-an-implied-warranty-.html

Kutner, Adam. (n.d.). The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case and Your Consumer Rights. Retrieved from https://www.askadamskutner.com/personal-injury/the-mcdonalds-hot-coffee-case/

Lau, T. & Johnson, L. (2011). The Legal and Ethical Environment of Business (Vol. 1). Flat World Knowledge.  Retrieved from https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/textbooks/The%20Legal%20and%20Ethical%20Environment%20of%20Business.pdf

Retro Report. (2015). How Hot Coffee Landed McDonald’s in Hot Water [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/TE8pJe8OJq4

Torres Burtka, Allison. (n.d.). Liebeck v. McDonald’s: The Hot Coffee Case. Retrieved from https://www.tortmuseum.org/liebeck-v-mcdonalds/

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