The $2.7 Million Coffee Spill

It sounded like the craziest damn thing I had ever heard. Did a jury really give some clumsy lady $2.7 million because she spilled hot coffee on herself? What, lady, you didn't know that "hot coffee" was hot? You didn't know that it's hard to drive and add sugar at the same time? This must be some money-grubbing lowlife trying to rip off a large corporation. Is our society so lawsuit crazy that anyone can get any amount out of any large corporation? Could it be the criminal justice system had gone that crazy?

Well as with many other things, a little digging revealed a totally different story. As much as I hate to ruin a good story with the facts, here are the circumstances in the case of Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants or the "McDonald's coffee case." On February 27, 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck was the front passenger in a Ford Probe operated by her grandson, Chris. She purchased a 49-cent cup of coffee from the drive-thru of a McDonalds in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Chris rolled forward and stopped so Ms. Liebeck could add cream and sugar. In removing the lid, Ms. Liebeck spilled the entire contents of the coffee cup on her lap.

Ms. Liebeck was wearing cotton sweat pants that absorbed the hot coffee and held it next to her skin. The liquid scalded her inner thighs, buttocks, groin and genital area. Ms. Liebeck suffered third-degree burns over 6% of her body and was hospitalized for eight days. Her recovery process involved skin grafts, the surgical removal of tissue, and whirlpool treatments. Ms. Liebeck sought to settle her claim for $20,000, but McDonald's refused. Ms. Liebeck sued McDonald's restaurants. The judge in the case ordered both sides to mediation. A retired judge mediating the case recommended that McDonald's settle for $225,000, believing that would be the amount a jury would award. McDonald's refused to settle the case.

During the course of discovery, some interesting facts came to light. This was not McDonald's first incident with a burned customer. Documents produced by McDonald's showed more than 700 claims by customers burned by coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some of these claims showed injuries similar to Ms. Liebeck's. Though McDonald's was obviously aware that their coffee was burning customers, they also produced a operations and training manual which stated their coffee must be brewed at 195-205 degrees F and held at 180-190 degrees F. This was found to be about 20 degrees hotter than coffee sold at similar establishments.

During the seven-day trial, McDonald's admitted they did not consider the consequences of serving such a hot product. They further admitted that coffee served at 180 degrees F is unfit for consumption, because it would burn the mouth. McDonald's stated they sell the coffee hot because their customers buy the coffee for later consumption at the home or work; they were contradicted by their own research that indicated customers planned to consume the product almost immediately while driving.

The jurors were appalled by the gruesome photos of Ms. Liebeck's painful injuries. A McDonald's witness then told the jury that coffee burns were a statistically rare event, compared to the billions of cups of coffee McDonald's sells; this struck many jurors as a large corporation putting profits ahead of human suffering. The jury then heard one McDonald's executive state that warnings on the cups were not necessary and that despite Ms. Liebeck's injuries, McDonalds had no intention of changing its policy on the way coffee was served.

The six men and six women of the jury swiftly found for Ms. Liebeck. Compensatory damages were set at $200,000 (later reduced to $160,000 because Ms. Liebeck was found to be 20% at fault). The jury then found that McDonald's had engaged in willful, reckless, malicious or wanton conduct, the criteria for punitive damages. After about four hours of deliberation, the jury awarded Ms. Liebeck about two days' worth of McDonald's coffee sales: $2.7 million.

Many of the jurors had entered the courtroom sure they were going to hear a ridiculous, frivolous lawsuit. The strength of the evidence and the apparent callousness of a large corporation swayed their thinking. The jurors were proud and confident of their decision. It has also been reported that the McDonald's in Albuquerque now sells their coffee at 158 degrees.

Most cops hate the "Headline Media." Very few of the serious situations we encounter can be properly summed up in a headline, a sound bite or a 90 second news story. After critical incidents, we are trained to keep our mouths shut. It is during this time that anti-police factions spout off with half-truths and bald-faced lies. We are quiet because we know when the facts come out, we will be exonerated. We are not allowed, nor would it be to our benefit, to try cases in the media. The media rarely has any stake in pursuing justice; they are much more concerned with pursuing profits.

As law enforcement officers, all we want is a fair shake in a court of law. Let all the facts come out, and then judge my actions. We must afford the same courtesy to other branches of the criminal justice system. After years of hearing about frivolous lawsuits, it was easy to assume McDonald's was being sued by some gold-digging angler. As the case turned out, it was McDonald's that was burned by their own corporate callousness. In the end, the much maligned system worked. It started out as the craziest damn lawsuit I had ever heard, but wound up restoring my faith in the criminal justice system.

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