“Hot Coffee” Premieres on HBO, Monday, June 27 at 9 PM
Is Justice Being Served?
Seinfeld mocked it. Letterman ranked it in his top ten list. And more than fifteen years later, its infamy continues. Everyone knows the McDonald’s coffee case. It has been routinely cited as an example of how citizens have taken advantage of America’s legal system, but is that a fair rendition of the facts? Hot Coffee reveals what really happened to Stella Liebeck, the Albuquerque woman who spilled coffee on herself and sued McDonald’s, while exploring how and why the case garnered so much media attention, who funded the effort and to what end. After seeing this film, you will decide who really profited from spilling hot coffee.
Above is the HBO promo. Watch the official trailer here
So I was born and raised in Albuquerque, and remember how this was the laughing stock of the nation for a while… Especially after McDonalds put the “CAUTION: HOT” warnings on their cups.
Anyway, vaguely interested in this… And for some reason, now I’m wondering which McDonalds location this happened at, because I’ve never looked into it before.
The plaintiff and the spill incident. The plaintiff, a 79-year-old grandmother named Stella Liebeck, was not driving, nor was the vehicle moving when the injury occurred. While the car was stopped, Mrs. Liebeck, who was sitting in the passenger seat, tried to hold the coffee cup between her knees as she removed the lid. The cup tipped over, spilling the contents into her lap.
The injury. Mrs. Liebeck’s injury was anything but trivial. The scalding-hot coffee caused third-degree burns over 16% of her body, including her genital area. She had to be hospitalized for eight days. She required extensive skin grafts and was permanently scarred. She was disabled for a period of two years. During the ensuing trial, Mrs. Liebeck’s physician testified that her injury was one of the worst cases of scalding he’d ever seen.
The coffee. At the time, McDonalds’ corporate specifications explicitly called for coffee to be served at a temperature between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit. An expert witness testified that liquids at this temperature will cause third degree burns of human skin in two to seven seconds. (Coffee served at home is typically 135 to 140 degrees.)
McDonalds’ culpability. During discovery, McDonald’s was required to produce corporate documents of similar cases. More than 700(!) claims had been made against McDonald’s, and many of the victims had suffered third-degree burns similar to Mrs. Liebeck’s. Yet the company had refused to change its policy, supposedly because a consultant had recommended the high temperature as a way to maintain optimum taste. Some have speculated that the real reason for the high temperature was to slow down consumption of the coffee, reducing the demand for free refills.
Greed? Despite the pain caused by her injury, and the lengthy and expensive treatments she required, Mrs. Liebeck originally offered to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000. The corporation offered her a mere $800, so the case went to trial.
The settlement. The jury awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages to Mrs. Liebeck, which was reduced to $160,000 because the jury felt that only 80% of the fault lay with McDonald’s, and 20% with her. They also awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages, essentially as punishment of McDonald’s for its callous treatment of Mrs. Liebeck, and its years of ignoring hundreds of similar injuries. This amount was held to be reasonable given that it represented only two days’ worth of McDonalds’ revenue from coffee sales alone. The trial judge reduced the punitive damages, however, to $480,000. After further negotiation, Mrs. Liebeck ultimately received $640,000.
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