The "Infamous" Hot Coffee Case

From time to time you hear me say that I am about to talk about a case that is off the beaten path of my normal types of cases that I blog about here but that is never more true than in this case.  I would also gander to guess it will likely be the only case such as this.  The first difference is that this is not a criminal case in any way.  This case is not about murder, or rape or even kidnapping.  This case is not one in which someone was facing prison time.  So, what about it qualifies it to land in a list of "true crimes"?  Well civil crimes are still crimes, but that is not necessarily the reason to blog about it here. I do however, have several reasons that I do what to post about this case.

The first reason I think it is important is that this case has gone down in history with the lay person as being the "poster child of excessive lawsuits." I say with the lay person because this is one of the first cases that is discussed with law students when they speak of tort law, not because it is frivolous, but because it is just the opposite but the media convinced people differently.  Speaking of the media, this is a perfect case in which their coverage, or lack there of, about this case is exactly what fed into this idea by the public. It seems like no one ever wants to search things and get the real story.  We watch selective news outlets and even movies that say that they are based on true stories and we just buy what we hear.  Now of course movies are in a way, or supposed to be different than our local news anchors telling us a story, but often it is just as full of fluff and fiction and that is very sad.  Another huge reason to talk about this case is because, although again it is not a criminal case, it is about accountability, for one and for two, it shows us how the justice system works, in a few different ways.  It is for this reason that I am not going to go into as great of detail, nor did do as much research as I would normally do for a case, although to be fair I know this case fairly well, not to mention, a simple search will bring you all the specific facts of the case that most do not bother to look up. I am putting it here also though so that readers of this blog can have details.

When people hear about the McDonald's Hot Coffee case a majority of people will tell you that some "stupid, old" woman put coffee between her legs in a car and drove away (or some believe she was a passenger in a moving car) and sustained burns when the coffee spilled in her lap and then she sued McDonald's for her actions.  Most will go on to say that a jury full of more "stupid" people granted this woman over two million dollars.  The problem with that belief is that almost all of that is untrue... yes she put the coffee between her legs, and yes she sustained burns when it spilled, but the rest is pure speculation.  This is why we have courts of law and the courts of public opinion are not allowed inside.  

The true story is that in 1992 a 79 year old woman went through the McDonald's drive thru with her grandson and ordered a cup of coffee.  The car did not have cup holders (obviously not the fault of McDonald's), although considering what happened next I do not think that would matter.  The lady's grandson pulled into a parking spot in the parking lot so that she could add her sugar and/or cream.  She placed the cup between her knees and took off the lid to add the sweetener.  At some point in the process the cup slipped and the coffee spilled inside her lap.  The fact that she was wearing sweatpants apparently did not help as the material soaked up the coffee, keeping it against her skin.  She sustained third degree burns on her thighs and genital area and other burns elsewhere. She would ultimately spend eight days in a hospital and under go skin grafts and ongoing therapy.  

She initially contacted McDonald's about the issue and asked for $20,000 (some reports say she only asked for $11,000) for what she thought would be her medical bills and the income her daughter lost having to care for her.  McDonald's declined the $20,000, but did offer her $800.00.  At this point the woman, who now had much larger medical bills, contacted a lawyer and sued.  Now, again, most are probably saying McDonald's was in no way liable for this woman being foolish enough to put the cup in her lap, having it spill and then want money from McDonald's.  But, obviously in 1994 a jury felt differently and they awarded her 2.86 million dollars.  One would hope that for them to come to this figure they had more information to go on than what I have given you at this point.  But, before I get to that point there are a few legal things to point out.  First off, the settlement would have been about $40,000 more, but as is the case in many civil and as they are known, tort, suits all parties are held responsible for their part in the damage that is sustained.  You obviously started out with 100% and depending on the responsibility of each party (as well as an allotment to allow "no fault") depends on how the settlement is figured.  In this case the jury decided that the plaintiff (the lady) should be considered 20% at fault, to which their award would be lessened by that amount.  So for her own damages (called actual damages) she received a judgment of $160,000 (down from $200,000). The next step for a civil jury can be to award what is called punitive damages.

Punitive damages are basically punishment damages.  They are given to more or less prove a point or harm the defendant.  The goal of punitive damages is to show the defendant that their actions were unreasonable and hopefully will change their practices in the future.  Punitive damages often have nothing what so ever to do with the plaintiff, they just get to be the lucky recipient of the claim.  In essence, this is money for nothing. The lady had already been awarded her actual damages, paying her medical bills as well as any other things that were "lost" due to this incident.  From the outside world this lady was getting an additional 2.7 million dollars for being "stupid."  And, that really was, and often continues to be by the uninformed, the resounding thought.  So, how did the jury come up with the amount of 2.7 million dollars?  McDonald's had been required to show financial records, at least when it pertained to their coffee sales that is.  According to their records they received $1,350,000 a DAY in coffee sales.  The jury thought that two days of coffee sales was sufficient for punitive damages.  Keep in mind that that was only two days of simply coffee sales, this was not total sales. So this involved no sales of any kinds of food, which is likely the BULK of their profits, breakfast or otherwise. Nor was it the sale of any other beverage... simply sales of coffee.  So while you and I think that 2.7 million dollars is a lot of money, and to be fair, it is, even this large reward likely did not put much of a dent in their profits.  

To be fair, before I go into just why the jury ruled against McDonald's, although they did in fact grant the woman $2.7 million, that was reduced to $640,000.  When that was appealed the parties ultimately settled for an undisclosed amount.  There is speculation that the amount was less than $600,000 but I am unsure how accurate that can be. The plaintiff would have obviously been looking for more than the $640,000 that had been awarded since the case was appealed but when you add in the cost of the appeal to lawyers, and courts, not to mention the time it would take to settle, it could very well have been under $600,000.  

So we know the outcome and we know a few of the facts of the case against the myths, but what we do not know yet is how on earth that "stupid" jury decided this woman was only 20% at fault and McDonald's should have been punished as much as they claimed.  We all know in criminal cases, such as those that I most often blog about, a defendant has the right to not testify.  In a large majority of cases a defendant chooses not to testify, but in those in which they do, quite often it is claimed they themselves lost the case due to their testimony or demeanor on the stand.  In a civil case a defendant (although they are called respondents), does not have that luxury.  They are expected to defend themselves. The other major difference between a criminal and a civil case is the weight of evidence the jury is to consider.  In a criminal case a defendant can only be found guilty "beyond reasonable doubt."  In a civil case it is considered to be a "preponderance of evidence." This simply means a jury can have some doubts but the evidence appears so strong that they lean towards the fact they are guilty.   We all remember the O.J. Simpson case.  He was found not guilty in his criminal trial but was found liable in the civil trial filed by the victims family.  He had not been forced to testify in his criminal trial but he was in his civil trial. 

When the trial was over many of the jury members conceded that it was the attitude of McDonald's that had lost the case for them in this one.  The jurors felt that they expressed total disregard for not just the lady who was suing them, but for all of their customers and that their number one priority was money.  Representatives for McDonald's testified that between 1982-1992 they had had over 700 complaints about burns associated with their coffee.  It appears that they had some sort of a fund that paid out for this and by that time had paid out over $500,000 in settlements.  When asked, the jury was told that in comparison to the vast amount of coffee they sold, 700 complaints were not enough to change any policies and that there were other areas deemed more important.  A quality control manager also conceded that they knew their coffee, being served at the temperature that it was, was "dangerous," and that one could not safely drink it within the first few minutes without some cooling method.  They could not argue that when spilled on the skin it had the potential to cause 3rd degree burns such as the lady had claimed within seconds. However, it appears that while they were not just blaming the lady for being careless and spilling it in the first place, they also blamed her age as a problem.  They believed someone younger, with better skin could have withstood the burns better and without issue. They also blamed the woman for not immediately removing her sweat pants that had helped contribute to the severity of her burns. They openly admitted in court, despite everything, and regardless of any outcome of the case they were not going to lower the temperature of their coffee.  It was this blatant unconcern for their customers that convinced the jury that they should be held liable.  

In the end McDonald's held to their word and did not lower the temperature of their coffee.  In fact, today many, and/or most places continue to serve coffee at about the same temperature.  But, McDonald's did make some changes as a result of this case, although I am sure some spin from representatives would indicate the case had nothing to do with it.  Prior to the case their coffee was served in rather flimsy cups.  The cups were rather thin and in my opinion just having those cups with a fresh cup of coffee propped between one's legs would have felt rather hot already.  After the case they began serving their coffee in more sturdy styrofoam cups.  They also put stronger warnings on the cups.

So, despite the news media portraying this case as a "frivolous lawsuit" or as ABC claimed "The poster child of excessive lawsuits" to which vastly shaped public opinion this case really was not.  Sadly this elderly woman had been chastised in the media for being less than intelligent in the incident even happening and greedy because of her lawsuit when in reality that was a huge exaggeration of the truth but because the media portrayed it that way, it must have been true.  

Today if you do a search about "Hot Coffee" and McDonald's many of the first things you will find are things such as this blog that tells the true story.  I am thankful for that but as the saying goes, "You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink."  We cannot make people to stop believing everything they see in movies, or even their local news. That is not to say that everything you read on the Internet is true either, but if you are determined to educate yourself on topics you are generally able to see all sides of things and come to logical conclusions.  The problem lies with getting people to do that.

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