In a recent Legal Briefs’ question and answer, Mark Alexander is an experienced litigator specializing in personal injury law talked about what punitive damages are in civil lawsuits and how we often get a distorted, negative view of punitive damages. One of the most famous cases involving punitive damages was the McDonald’s coffee case. Many people have only heard the side of the case that painted the plaintiff in a negative light but there is a side that helps show why punitive damages are important in civil cases
Question: Let’s talk about the famous McDonald’s coffee case from the early 1990s. Will you give us a summary of the case and some of the facts that are not commonly known?
Mark: This is the case everyone remembers. In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck spilled coffee in her lap which resulted in second and third degree burns. The burns were enough to require skin grafts. She attempted to have McDonald’s pay her medical bills. McDonald’s refused and she sued. Mrs. Liebeck had never sued anyone before.
During the case’s discovery process, internal documents from McDonald’s revealed the company had received hundreds of similar complaints from customers claiming McDonald’s coffee caused severe burns. In evidence heard at the trial, McDonald’s operations manual required the franchisee to hold its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit. Coffee at that temperature, if spilled, causes third-degree burns in three to seven seconds.
For people to have a full understanding of how severe the burns were, they can search Google images for Liebeck burns or McDonald’s coffee case. At trial, this led the jury to find McDonald’s knew their product was dangerous and injuring their customers, and that the company had done nothing to correct the problem.
The jury decided on $200,000 in compensatory damages, but attributed 20 percent of the fault to Liebeck, reducing her compensation to $160,000. The jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which was at the time two days of McDonald’s coffee sales revenue. The judge later reduced the punitive damages to $480,000. The case is often criticized for the very high amount of damages the jury awarded.
Question: There was a lot of backlash from the public. The case is often cited as an example of a frivolous lawsuit by people who don’t know all the facts of the case and the injuries sustained by the Mrs. Liebeck.
Mark: Until they know all the facts, a lot of people have used this case as an example of what has gone wrong with our justice system. I like to look at the case as an example of how the justice system works. It showed that a person can stand on the same footing with a corporate giant like McDonald’s and ask 12 ordinary people to hold them responsible for the harm they knew would occur but did nothing about it.