You may have not heard of the term Tort reform before because it’s not very common, but it’s extremely important. Tort Reform is a war against consumers, it’s as simple as that. The best example of tort reform’s campaign against consumers is what happened in our country when a grandmother from New Mexico was severely burned by a cup of coffee. The coffee was not just “hot,” but dangerously hot. McDonald’s corporate policy was to serve the coffee at a temperature that caused serious burns. Ms. Liebeck was wearing sweatpants that kept the coffee against her skin. She suffered third-degree burns and required skin grafts. Liebeck’s case was also not far from an isolated event. McDonald’s had received more than 700 previous reports of injury from its coffee. Including reports of third-degree burns, and had paid settlements in some cases. Moreover, the Shriner’s Burn Institute published warnings to the food industry that its members were causing serious burns by serving beverages above 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
Stella Liebeck, was 79 years old, sitting in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car with a cup of coffee. After the car stopped, she tried to hold the cup between her knees while removing the lid. However, the cup tipped over, pouring scalding coffee onto her. She received third-degree burns over 16 percent of her body, requiring hospitalization for eight days. She also received skin grafting, scarring, and disability for more than two years. The areas which had full thickness injury had to have skin grafts for coverage. Ms. Liebeck brought a suit against McDonalds and was apparently willing to settle for $20,000 but McDonalds made a strategic decision to fight the claim. This turned out to be a bad business decision for McDonalds but a good decision for the rest of the public.
McDonalds kept their coffee temperature between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit. They used this temperature based on a consultant’s advice that this was the range needed for the best taste. McDonalds later admitted that they had not studied the dangers associated with these high temperatures. It is also important to note that other fast food restaurants sold their coffee at significantly lower temperatures. Most coffee served by people in their homes is in the 135-140 degree range.
The Plaintiff’s expert testified that liquids at 180 degrees would cause a full-thickness burn to human skin in two to seven seconds. Having the temperature of the liquid below 155 degrees causes the likelihood of a burn injury to fall exponentially. Essentially, if the coffee served to Ms. Liebeck was 155 degrees, she would have avoided significant injury when she spilled it.
The case is considered by some to be an example of frivolous litigation. ABC News called the case “the poster child of excessive lawsuits”. McDonald’s asserts that the outcome of the case was a fluke but we know better. Mcdonald’s attributed the loss to poor strategy, but we know it was because McDonald’s simply didn’t care about its customers. Detractors also highlighted the fact that Liebeck spilled the coffee on herself rather than any wrongdoing on the company’s part. Liebeck’s opponents argued that the vast majority of judges who consider similar cases dismiss them and this should have been too. The jury disagreed due to McDonald’s complete misunderstanding of Liebeck’s injuries. The jury ended up awarding $200,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. The compensatory damages were reduced by 20 percent for Liebeck’s contribution. Even though the punitive damages award seemed high, it only amounted to about two days’ worth of coffee sales.
One of the main benefits emanating from the trial was revealed when a post-verdict investigation showed that that temperature of the coffee at the local Albuquerque McDonalds had been reduced to 158 degrees Fahrenheit, a level still dangerous but less likely to cause injury if spilled. Perhaps the system worked after all. A products liability case with a high monetary award resulted in a much safer product. The case was not so “frivolous” after all.