Articles & Resources

More Ridiculous Than Suing McDonald’s For Spilt Coffee

Posted by T. Jake HinkinsApr 18, 20150 Comments

You have probably heard the claim that people sue too much today. A previous entry, How Torts Protect Us, discussed how bringing lawsuits can actually provide protection for us and others. So before jumping on the bandwagon complaining about a sue-happy society, consider the benefits you gain from lawsuits you or others bring. This article will address a related complaint: not only do people bring lawsuits too often, but the lawsuits are brought over any frivolous thing. It seems the example most often cited as support for this argument is the infamous McDonald's coffee case.

You've heard about this one, right? Perhaps you've only caught the general gist of the case, and you're understanding is something like this: some lady sued McDonald's because she burned herself with its coffee. “Ridiculous,” you may have thought to yourself when you first heard about it, and now, whenever it's brought up again, you roll your eyes and mutter, “Unbelievable.”

That's certainly how most seem to react in response to this case. I'll admit that I once acted the same way myself. But then one day a professor assigned us to read the case and its history, and suddenly, the case that seemed to symbolize how lawsuits were out of control in America exemplified the ability of lawsuits to protect the vulnerable from being collateral costs of the powerful and wealthy.

So here are the facts: Seventy-nine year old Stella Liebeck was riding in the passenger seat of her grandson's car when they stopped for coffee at a McDonald's. After getting the coffee at the drive-thru window, her grandson pulled over and stopped the car. Stella placed her coffee cup between her knees and attempted to take off the lid. In doing so, the coffee inside spilled all over her. The sweat pants she was wearing at the time soaked up the scalding liquid and held it compressed to her skin. At the hospital, examinations showed that she had third degree burns on six-percent of her body including her thighs, groin, and buttocks.

After the incident, Ms. Liebeck sought only $20,000 from McDonald's, half of which was to cover $11,000 in medical expenses she incurred. McDonald's, however, refused and offered only $800, so the case proceeded to trial. Through discovery and the trial, evidence was brought forward that showed that over 700 people had been burned by McDonald's coffee. McDonald's, it was shown, was aware of those incidences and also aware of the fact that the severity of burns was exacerbated by the requirement McDonald's placed on its restaurant chains to maintain the coffee's temperature between 180 – 190° F. McDonald's demanded such a high temperature because it claimed that customers preferred the coffee that hot; to McDonald's, the burns that resulted were just costs that were outweighed by the benefit of selling more coffee.

Learning the facts changed the minds of the individuals of the jurors, who went from originally feeling like they were wasting their time  to coming forward with a verdict in favor of Ms. Liebeck for $200,000 in special damages and $2.7 million–the amount McDonald's made on two days of coffee sales at the time–in punitive damages.  This result helped McDonald's take responsibility for its actions, and change its practices, which likely saved several more people from being similarly injured.

After learning the facts of the case, don't you feel more sympathetic and understanding as well? Lawsuits like Ms. Liebeck's provide a mechanism for people to avoid being a collateral cost of doing business, another small line item in a company's cost and benefit analysis. Ms. Liebeck used a lawsuit to hold a company responsible when it was causing harm to some people in order to make a higher profit. Lawsuits like hers help people force other individuals and businesses to consider and respect the wellbeing of those they claim to serve. And once we've actually learned about the case, we see that a cavalier dismissal of cases before listening to the facts with an open mind is much more ridiculous than suing McDonald's for getting burned by its coffee.