Q: My husband and I were talking about that famous case, where the lady sued McDonald’s for millions when she got burned by hot coffee that spilled on her while she was holding the cup between her legs. I think coffee is supposed to be hot and who holds hot coffee between their legs anyway. Comments?
A: You’re referring to Liebeck v. McDonalds Restaurants, arguably one of the most famous (or infamous, depending upon your political orientation) product liability cases in the last twenty-five years. Mrs. Lieback was 79 years old when the incident happened in 1992. She was sitting in a parked car and put the cup between her legs so she could remove the cap. Unfortunately, the entire cup of steaming coffee spilled onto her legs, resulting in third degree burns, a week in the hospital, and additional hospital stays for skin grafts. Initially, Mrs. Lieback’s family asked McDonald’s for $20,000 to cover the cost of her expenses and lost wages. They countered with $800 and Mrs. Liebeck hired an attorney. At trial, Mrs. Liebeck”s attorneys showed that in the ten years prior to this action, more than 700 people had been burned by McDonald”s coffee, which was served at temperatures higher than the industry norm. It took a twelve person jury only four hours to award Mrs. Liebeck her out-of-pocket expenses plus $200,000 for pain and suffering, less 20% for contributory negligence. On top of that, however, they awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages. The judge hearing the case reduced the total award to $640,000, which was appealed by McDonald’s. The amount of the final settlement remains undisclosed. So yes, coffee is supposed to be hot. And it’s not a great idea to hold a cup of steaming hot coffee between your legs. But McDonald’s had been put on notice that the high temperature of their coffee had caused many injuries, yet they failed to act. A primary purpose of civil lawsuits is to protect the public by informing them of hazards and encouraging manufacturers and providers to make their products safer.