The Meritorious Coffee Case

By Francis "Brink" Hinson

Coffee cases are back in news recently, after a Florida jury determined that Starbucks was liable for $100,000 for burns a customer suffered after spilling coffee that the barista chain had served at a whopping 190 degrees. It’s noteworthy that the jury’s verdict included compensation for $15,492.14 in medical bills that were incurred as a result of the scalding hot liquid.

As an attorney and advocate for those who have been injured by the carelessness of others, I often hear potential clients say something along the lines of “This is a real case… it’s not like that lady who spilled coffee and won millions of dollars.” They presumably intend simply to be reassuring that they aren’t being greedy or looking to pursue an unjust action. However, the hot coffee comparison – referencing Stella Liebeck’s 1994 case against McDonald’s – is rather misplaced and the result of a widespread misunderstanding.

This is part of a narrative that big business and insurance companies have pushed for several decades: “Greedy trial lawyers and lazy citizens are filing frivolous lawsuits and abusing the court system.” Perhaps the most infamous lawsuit utilized to advance this misconception is the case of Ms. Liebeck’s case against McDonald’s – often referred to simply as “the hot coffee case.” I’d like to take a second to separate reality and misconceptions….or maybe, more accurately stated, to separate the truths from the lies.

The facts of this case go back some years. In February of 1992, Stella Liebeck (who at the time was 79 years-old) and her grandson bought breakfast at a drive-through at a McDonald’s restaurant. After getting their meals, her grandson parked the car so Stella could put cream and sugar into her coffee. Stella put the Styrofoam coffee cup between her knees to hold it, but while taking off the lid, she spilled the drink in her lap and on her legs. I would like to take just a second to comment about how all of us, from time to time, are no different than Stella. That is to say, we’ve all spilled a drink (or ten) in our lives, and some of these spills have been not only across the table but on ourselves too. I mention this to point out that it should have been entirely foreseeable to McDonald’s that customers would, on occasion, spill coffee on themselves. Sure, McDonald’s could not have known that it would be Stella Liebeck on this particular morning at this particular restaurant, but, undoubtedly some, customer, some day, somewhere, would spill coffee onto his/her lap.

We all expect coffee to be hot, and we expect spilling it to hurt. But we would not expect it to send us to the hospital – we would not expect what happened to Stella. The coffee that spilled into Stella’s lap was a shocking 180-190 degrees in temperature (recall that boiling is only slightly higher, at 212 degrees). By comparison, home coffee brewers generally make coffee at approximately 130-140 degrees. The resulting burns forever changed Stella’s life.

When we first heard of Stella’s case, the extreme temperature at which McDonald’s had served the coffee was probably not mentioned. And what was probably implied was that she suffered a little burn from the hot liquid – simply not true. Stella suffered third degree burns on her legs, groin, and buttocks. The pictures of the burns are rather gruesome, so I’ve not imbedded them into this post; however, if you would like to see images of the burns to Ms. Liebeck’s legs and groin area, these can be seen at the following links: Stella Lieback's burns link 1, Stella Lieback's burns link 2.

As a result of the outrageously hot coffee, Stella was in the hospital for more than a week. She required skin grafts on her inner thighs and had to endure painful procedures to clean the burns and prevent infection. Although, prior to her hospitalization, she had lived independently, she never again returned to the level of independence and mobility that she had enjoyed prior to suffering the third degree burns and subsequent medical treatment.

Initially, all that Stella asked of McDonald’s was that the company reimburse her for the medical bills she had incurred – but McDonald’s refused. Stella brought suit against McDonald’s, essentially arguing that the restaurant was knowingly selling coffee at temperatures that were far in excess of what is safe and reasonable. Stella’s legal counsel was able to find 700 prior instances when other citizens had been burned by McDonald’s coffee. Ultimately, McDonald’s admitted that its coffee could cause third-degree burns.

When the case finally went to trial in 1994, the jury found that McDonald’s had acted negligently and carelessly and provided Stella with $200,000 in compensation for her medical bills, pain, and suffering. The jury also assigned some blame to Stella for having spilled the coffee, finding her to be 20% at fault. Thus, the amount of the verdict was reduced proportionally, down to $160,000. Presumably taking into consideration the numerous prior instances of customers being burned by McDonald’s coffee, the jury also found that McDonald’s had acted with such reckless disregard for human safety that a punitive damages award should be issued. Punitive damages are not designed to compensate the injured person but are intended to punish the defendant for its bad behavior. The jury found for $2.7 million dollars in punitive damages against McDonald’s, a figure which they had been informed represented a mere two days of the profit that McDonald’s received from its sales of coffee. The judge then reduced the punitive damages down to $480,000 (three times the compensatory amount), and thus the total verdict for Stella was only $640,000 ($160,000 plus $480,000). McDonald’s filed an appeal; however, before this could be heard, the parties settled out of court for an undisclosed amount that is believed to be less than $600,000.

I would bet that this is quite different than what most us have heard, and I would encourage people to learn more about the truth behind the case and the spin that the McDonald’s corporation and big business put on this and many other lawsuits. A good start is the film Hot Coffee, which is an excellent documentary directed by Susan Saladoff. The movie premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and has been aired on HBO (also available through Amazon and for rent on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmEYWCg0J7Q). It’s a fantastic film which may change your outlook on the civil justice system in America. If enough people are better informed about the case, maybe a potential client will one day say something along the lines of: “Like Ms. Liebeck’s coffee case, my case is just and meritorious and my injuries have been life altering and could have been avoided if the defendant had simply used reasonable caution.”

In my experience as an attorney, the vast majority of people who file lawsuits are not all greedy or malicious. Typically, they have one thing in common – they have suffered a serious injury that could have been entirely avoided if someone else had simply exercised reasonable care and consideration for others. At the Finkel Law Firm, our attorneys have years of experience in advocating and seeking justice for clients who have been wrongfully injured. If you or someone you know has been injured in an accident, please give us a call.

Categories: Personal Injury

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