This is a famous product liability case which involves Stella liebeck as the complaint and McDonalds as the plaintiff.The case has many fictional details about the actual incident.The true account of the story is that Liebeck was in her grandson’s car in the passenger seat when hot coffee spilled on her thighs while in a McDonalds drive-through. The coffee was at 88 degrees and with this amount of temperature; one suffers a third degree burn, which happened to Liebeck. The hot coffee spilt on Liebeck’s sweatpants, made from cotton, which absorbed the coffee and held it right next to her skin. She underwent the following:
· Scald thighs, buttocks and groin
· 6% of her skin got burned
· Lost 20% of her weight when she was admitted to hospital
· Permanent disfigurement in her groin region
· Disabled for 2 years
With all this damage on Stella’s body, she sought for $20’000 as her actual medical expense but the company only offered a shocking $800 amount. This intrigued the complaint’s lawyer, Reed Morgan, to file a law suit on August 8, 1994 in New Mexico District Court and to be heard by Judge Robert H. Scott. Reed offered to settle for $300’000 and a mediator’s $225’000 but McDonalds refused these pre-trial attempts to solve the case seeing that it was the complaints fault that she got burned.
Liebeck’s lawyer accused McDonalds for selling coffee that is “unreasonably dangerous” and “defectively manufactured.” He argued that selling coffee at 88 degrees Celsius would cause third degree burns and that other similar companies serve coffee at a lower temperature of about 60 degrees Celsius. McDonald argued that they serve coffee at that temperature because many of their customers bought coffee to drink while driving and that would allow it to cool and not cause any harm. Mostly, customers wanted it hot and when served when its temperature is lower they complained.
The case attracted so much attention, even up to international level that caused the case to have many sides of the story. Both parties had supporters; some accused Liebeck of spilling coffee on herself while driving. Another story shows that Stella poured the hot coffee on herself while trying to add cream and sugar while the coffee was in between her knees.
Other documents that were obtained from McDonald showed that between 1982 and 1992, there were 700 complaints of customers burned by hot coffee. The company’s quality control manager, Christopher Appleton argued that the number of injuries was insufficient to make the company change its normal practices. He went ahead and argued that, all foods that are hotter than 54 degrees Celsius have a burn hazard and that restaurants have more pressing issues to worry about. Stella’s lawyer then accused Appleton conceded that McDonald’s coffee is then meant to burn the customer’s mouth and throat when served.
A twelve person jury finalized the case on August 18, 1994 and accused McDonalds for being responsible for the injury of Stella Liebeck. They offered $160’000 for compensatory damages and in addition, $1.7 million in punitive damages. This decision was appealed by both parties and they agreed to settle the case out of court. There is no information on how much they agreed to settle for.
Detractors argued that this kind of case was then considered to be frivolous and judges were asked to dismiss them before getting to the jury. They also argued that McDonald’s coffee was not defective as it is conformed to industry standards. They gave two other examples of restaurants that serve their coffee hotter than McDonalds; one of them being Starbucks. Now if Liebeck were under the influence of alcohol and poured the coffee on her self then she would sure need the help of a dui lawyer in this situation.
This case became popular and resulted in celebrities and other popular people commenting about it. Later on, a documentary was made known as the Hot Coffee Documentary and it included the celebrities’ comments, news coverage, talk shows and new short clips about the case. An offshoot from a weekly news column resulted in creation of a website which awarded people who filled for frivolous cases. They named it the “Stella Awards” in honor of Liebeck.
National coffee association spokesman said that McDonalds conforms to industry standard and he showed evidence of other companies that serve hotter coffee than that which burned Liebeck.
Today McDonalds continues to serve coffee hot or hotter because the hot coffee is not unreasonably dangerous and that will not make them stop just because their product can cause serious damage when poorly handled. Their cups have strongly worded warnings on the cups though they still continue facing coffee complaints.