Three Million Dollar Cup of Coffee Provides Example of Justice System
The fantasy is the $3,000,000.00 cup of McDonald’s coffee. The reality is that the civil justice system worked to compensate a victim of a wrongdoer’s conduct to prevent future harm.
We have all read about the $3,000,000.00 cup of McDonald’s coffee, but have you heard of Mrs. Liebeck’s cup of coffee? On February 27, 1992, Mrs. Liebeck ordered a cup of coffee at McDonald’s. While holding the cup between her knees with one hand, trying to get the lid off, since there was no cup holder in her car, scalding coffee spilled into her lap. The 170 degree coffee seared her skin, causing second and third degree burns.
After seven days in the hospital and approximately three weeks of recuperation, she began to undergo painful skin grafts. She was helped during the recuperation period by her daughter, who stayed off work to take care of Mrs. Liebeck. In August, 1992, Mrs. Liebeck asked McDonald’s to turn down the temperature of their coffee and sought $2,000.00 in out-of-pocket expenses she incurred, plus her daughter’s lost wages while she was taking care of her. McDonald’s response was $800.00.
Mrs. Liebeck, who did not want to sue, was left with no alternative but to get a lawyer to see the protection of our civil justice system.
Prior to her trial, her attorney offered to settle with McDonald’s for $300,000.00. McDonald’s refused. In August, 1994, this case went to trial, requiring Mrs. Liebeck to have expert witnesses, doctors and witnesses come to court to explain to the jury her side of the cup of coffee. One of her experts, Dr. Charles Baxter, who was a burn expert, testified that coffee at 170 degrees would cause second degree burns within 3.5 seconds. A McDonald’s spokesman testified that even thought they had 700 complaints of burns over a ten-year period, they decided not to turn the temperature of their coffee down. An expert for McDonald’s told the jury that even thought 700 complaints were received, in relation to the amount of coffee that McDonald’s sold, these were trivial.
One juror, who initially went into the trial thinking that Mrs. Liebeck’s claim was frivolous, after hearing all the evidence, felt that $9.6 million dollars was a more appropriate jury award. The jury determined that Mrs. Liebeck was 20% at fault and reduced her damages accordingly. They awarded $200,000.00 compensatory damages and $2.7 million punitive damages. The punitive damages represented two days of McDonald’s gross sales of coffee. The judge, as required by the civil justice system, reviewed the evidence and determined that the jury verdict should be reduced to $640,000.00, which was basically three times the compensatory damages awarded to Mrs. Liebeck.
The judge, a self-described conservative Republican, wanted to deliver a message to McDonald’s. The case was later settled for an undisclosed amount after McDonald’s threatened an appeal. As is generally the case, the secrecy of the settlement was at the insistence of McDonald’s.
Mrs. Liebeck’s cup of coffee is an example of how the civil justice system currently works without tort reform. Mrs. Liebeck was an injured person who was rebuked by the wrongdoer and was required to get a lawyer to protect her rights. The evidence to the jury supported not only compensatory damages, but punitive damages based on the egregious conduct of McDonald’s. The judge, after reviewing the evidence, determined that a more appropriate verdict would be three times the compensatory damages and entered the judgment in that amount. The case was later settled.
Thanks to Mrs. Liebeck, now McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants have turned down the temperature of their coffee to a safe temperature. We all knew that coffee spilled on you would cause a sting and a burn, but now, thanks to Mrs. Liebeck, we can be assured that the coffee that spills on us or those in the car with us, including our children, will not cause second or third degree burns.
We also know that McDonald’s still sells coffee, and that we still buy it.
The fantasy is the $3,000,000.00 cup of McDonald’s coffee. The reality is that the civil justice system worked to compensate a victim of a wrongdoer’s conduct to prevent future harm. Mrs. Liebeck’s cup of coffee is proof that we do not need tort reform.
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