The “McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case”: 20 Years in the Making

hot-coffee-lawsuitIt’s hard to believe, but this year marks the 20-year anniversary of the “McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case.” Recall that the case arose when McDonald’s coffee spilled on the lap of Ms. Leibeck, a passenger in a car going through a McDonald’s drive-thru, causing burns and other injuries. After a jury trial, Ms. Leibeck was awarded $2.9 million dollars for her injuries.

The case is notorious in America, and beyond, for supposedly highlighting all that is wrong with the justice system in America. However, when one really looks back 20-years at what really happened in the case, it is clear that the notoriety is not founded on actual facts but on the biased spinnings of the case by media and corporate America.

Ever since the jury first decided the case in 1994, the insurance industry has grabbed a hold of the media frenzy and wielded the notoriety against persons injured by the negligence of others.  Recently, one insurance defense attorney in Utah tried to inflame a jury against the plaintiff by arguing the McDonald’s Hot Coffee case phenomenon in closing argument.  The plaintiff’s attorney immediately objected to the argument as prejudicial to the plaintiff.

The objection made it all the way to the Utah Supreme Court.  Boyle v. Christensen, 251 P.3d 810 (2011).  The court discussed the McDonald’s case and, rather than summarize their conclusions for you, I provide an excerpt from the court’s opinion:

Before we analyze this statement, it may be useful to explain the cultural context of the McDonald’s coffee case, more formally known as Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, P.T.S., Inc., [No. CV-93-02419, 1995 WL 360309 (N.M. Dist. Ct. Aug. 18, 1994)]. Few cases have ever achieved as much notoriety among the general public of this country as the McDonald’s coffee case, fueled by its wide-ranging and repeated publicity in national and local news media. It has been mocked in extremely popular entertainment television, including The Tonight Show, The Late Show, and Seinfeld. It has been debated on talk shows, parodied in television commercials, mentioned in congressional debates, and is firmly lodged in the public consciousness. Mark B. Greenlee, Kramer v. Java World: Images, Issues and Idols in the Debate over Tort Reform, 26 CAP.U.L.Rev.. 701, 702-03 (1997). “What made the headlines and what is most commonly recalled by the general populace about the … case is the size of the verdict and the source of the injury—$2.9 million for spilled coffee.” Id. at 718. In U.S. popular culture, the case has come to symbolize greedy plaintiffs and lawyers who file frivolous lawsuits and win hugely excessive sums in a broken legal system. See, e.g., Peter G. Angelos, Commentary, 1996 Spring Commencement Speech, 27 U. BALT. L.F. 19, 21 (1996); Michael McCann, William Haltom & Anne Bloom, Java Jive: Genealogoy of Judicial Icon, 56 U. MIAMI L.REV. 113, 115, (2001).
Athough the public view of the case is understandable when limited to a superficial view of its facts, a deeper look at the details and issues in the case may dramatically alter one’s perspective. Among the many relevant facts generally missing from the public consciousness are the following:
(1) The temperature of the spilled coffee was so hot—180 to 190 degrees—that within seconds it caused third-degree burns that extended through the skin to the fat, muscle, or bone on Ms. Liebeck’s thighs, buttocks, and groin area. She was hospitalized for eight days, underwent skin grafts, was disabled for two years following the accident, and was permanently disfigured with scars on over 16 percent of her body.See Greenlee, supra, at 718–19; see also Angelos, supra, at 21; Brian Timothy Beasley, North Carloina’s New Punitive Damages Statute: Who’s Being Pubished, Anyway?, 74 N.C.L.REV. 2174, 2190 (1996).
(2) The jury heard evidence that McDonald’s had received approximately 700 other complaints about coffee-burn injuries in the previous decade (some of which were settled for a total outlay of over $500,000), but considered the number of injuries statistically insignificant and therefore did not lower the temperature of its coffee. See Marc Galanter, An Oil Strike in Hell: Contemporary Legends About the Civil Justice System, 40 ARIZ. L.REV. 717, 732 (1998); Greenlee, supra at 719-722.
(3) The jury awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages because it believed the extreme temperature of the coffee was unreasonably dangerous and that McDonald’s had callously disregarded the danger even after hundreds of injuries. The $2.7 million figure was based on the approximate revenues from just two days of McDonald’s coffee sales. Shari Seidman Diamond, Truth, Justice, and the Jury, 26 HARV. J.L. & PUB. POL’YY 143, 146-67 (2003).
Given the uniquely iconic nature of this case, the passion it has produced in the media, and the general misunderstanding of the totality of its facts and reasoning among the public, we find it hard to imagine a scenario where it would be proper for a party’s counsel to refer to it before a jury. Generally, as here, such a reference would seem to have the sole purpose of recalling the public outrage over isolated elements of the case—thus improperly appealing to a jury’s passions. It is not the jury’s job to make legal determinations, so no legal arguments from the case are relevant…. It is certainly unfair to require the other party to clarify all the misconceptions about this irrelevant case in the limited time allotted for closing argument. The great latitude provided in closing arguments regards reasonable inferences about evidence properly before the jury and does not extend to misrepresentations or efforts to appeal to a jury’s passions. Thus the reference to the McDonald’s coffee case in closing argument was improper.
Doyle, 251 P.3d 810, 816-19 (2011).
The court required the parties to try the case all over again because of the confusion created by the reference to the McDonald’s case and the likelihood that the jury would improperly reduce the amount awarded to the plaintiff.
As a personal injury attorney, who represents those injured by the negligence of others, I often (always) enter the courtroom to face many of the biases and misconceptions created in the wake of Ms. Leibeck’s jury award. I can’t rightly argue for the appropriateness of Ms. Leibeck’s award–the jury would hate me even more, but I can’t rightly ignore it either–I need to identify jurors with potential biases.  The only way to balance the scales against the public’s misconception is through education and awareness.
The misconceptions highlighted by the court above identify but a few of the important facts relevant to the jury’s ultimate decision to award Ms. Leibeck $2.9 million dollars.  A 2011 award winning HBO Documentary entitled “Hot Coffee” opened the door to a real and honest discussion about the McDonald’s case, and other similar cases spun by corporate America to mislead the public. It highlights the important differences between what is presented to the community throughout the media and the reality surrounding the civil justice system in America. It’s a good watch and worth your time, even if only to quench your curiosity and better understand one of the most debated legal cases of our time.  It’s available to rent on
I’d be interested in knowing your thoughts on this issue, especially after watching the documentary.

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