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The Strange Case of Spilled Coffee

Did you ever wonder what the facts were in the famous (or infamous) McDonald’s coffee spill case? It’s been a few years but it is still remembered by many, especially by those who use it as an example of a tort system having gone wild. Is there more to it than just some woman spilling her coffee and receiving a multimillion-dollar award? What really happened? Even lawyers get curious about what happened in news worthy cases like this, and so I went looking for the back story and located an American Trial Lawyer Association (ATLA) description of what happened.

According to the ATLA article I found, an elderly Albuquerque, New Mexico, woman was a passenger in her grandson’s car in 1992 when she served hot coffee in a Styrofoam cup at the drive through window of a local McDonalds. After receiving the order, the grandson pulled his car slightly forward, stopped and allowed his grandmother to put cream and sugar in her coffee. The 79-year-old woman then placed the cup between her knees as she attempted to remove the lid. That’s when the hot coffee spilled into her lap.

McDonalds’ policy was to hold its coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees to maintain optimum taste. However, the safety ramifications at this temperature had never been evaluated. There was trial testimony that a burn hazard exists with any food substance served at 140 degrees or above and that McDonalds coffee, at the temperature, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat. The quality assurance manager for the company admitted that burns would occur but, he testified, McDonalds had no intention of reducing the “holding temperature” of its coffee.

During the trial evidence was presented showing that other establishments were able to sell coffee at substantially lower temperatures and coffee served at home is generally much lower at 140 degrees or so. At the time of this incident, McDonalds had also accumulated a history of more than 700 claims by people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some claims involved third-degree burns similar to this woman.

Most of us wear casual clothes when we go out for fast food and drive throughs. The evidence in this case showed this lady was no exception. She was wearing cotton sweatpants which allowed the cloth to absorb the overheated coffee and then to cling to her flesh after the spill. The older woman received full thickness (third-degree) burns over her inner thighs, genital and groin region. She was hospitalized for eight days and underwent debridement and skin grafting. If the spill in this case had involved coffee at only 155 degrees, the liquid would have cooled rapidly enough to avoid a serious burn.

Even though McDonalds claimed that customers buy coffee on their way to work or somewhere else to consume, the company’s own research showed that customers intend to consume the coffee immediately while driving. Even though consumers know coffee is hot and want it that way, the company admitted its customers were unaware that they could suffer third degree burns from the coffee.

The jury awarded the woman $200,000 in compensatory damages, reduced to $160,000 because the jury found the woman herself 20 percent at fault in the spill. However, the circumstances of McDonalds policy concerning hot coffee and its history of prior spills must have played a part in the jury’s decision to award punitive damages because they did so in the amount of $2.7 million. According to the ATLA report, this equaled about two days of McDonalds’ coffee sales. The punitive award was later reduced to $480,000.00 (three times the compensatory damages) by the trial judge. Nevertheless, even though this was a highly publicized case, we will never really know the true outcome because eventually the parties entered into a secret settlement which has never been made public. JP