What Happened: Stella Liebeck ordered a cup of coffee from the drive-through window of a local McDonald’s restaurant. With the car parked and Liebeck in the passenger seat Liebeck attempted to add cream and sugar to her coffee. Liebeck placed the coffee cup between her knees and pulled the far side of the lid toward her to remove it. In the process, she spilled the entire cup of coffee on her lap. Liebeck was wearing cotton sweatpants that absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin, scalding her thighs, buttocks, and groin. Liebeck was taken to the hospital, where it was determined that she had suffered third-degree burns on six percent of her skin and lesser burns over sixteen percent. She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent skin grafting. During this period, Liebeck lost 20 pounds, reducing her to 83 pounds. After the hospital stay, Liebeck needed care for 3 weeks, which was provided by her daughter. Liebeck suffered permanent disfigurement after the incident and was partially disabled for two years.
Question Before the Court: Did McDonald’s breach the standard of care by serving its coffee too hot?
Court Ruling: A twelve-person jury reached a verdict applying the principles of comparative negligence. The jury found that McDonald’s was 80% responsible for the incident and Liebeck was 20% at fault. Though there was a warning on the coffee cup, the jury decided that the warning was neither large enough nor sufficient. They awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages, which was then reduced by 20% to $160,000. In addition, they awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages. The jurors apparently arrived at this figure from Morgan’s suggestion to penalize McDonald’s for one or two days’ worth of coffee revenues, which were about $1.35 million per day. The judge reduced punitive damages to $480,000, three times the compensatory amount, for a total of $640,000. The decision was appealed by both McDonald’s and Liebeck in December 1994, but the parties settled out of court for an undisclosed amount less than $600,000.