Sunday, March 25, 2012

McDonald's Coffee: The truth about the infamous lawsuit

The other day I pulled through McDonald's for their $1.00 soda and a $1.00 McChicken (I know, horrible for me, but I needed quick and very cheap).  "Welcome to McDonald's.  Would you like to order a free coffee today?"  I sat there dumbfounded.  Free coffee?  Really?  Apparently from March 12th through the 23rd, you could get a free coffee at McDonalds.

Why was I dumbfounded?  The idiocy of a corporation and the belief that all people would not know the FULL FACTS of the Coffee lawsuit if the 90's.  In fact, amongst my non- law school friends, this remains the most misunderstood award in tort law history due to a political smear campaign.

So, let me make you aware of the facts as they were:
1.  Normal coffee that you brew at your house is approx 135 degrees.
2.  Corporate McDonald's policy was to brew at 185 degrees, +/- 5 degrees.
3.  McDonalds was aware that this degree of heat would, in fact, burn a customers lips, throat, and mouth.
4.  McDonalds had been warned several times that the heat was too high for safety.  There had been other burns, from other customers.  McDonalds refuse to lower heat, stating their customers were often driving and wanted their coffee to still be hot when the reached their destination.  McDonalds had documented a long history of the severity of this problem.
5.  At 185f, the heat would cause SEVERE burns within 2 to 7 seconds.
6.  The plaintiff was a grandmother and 79 years of age.  She purchased her drink as a passanger in a car.  She was dressed in sweatpants.
7.  She took the top off to add cream and sugar.  The car was parked.  As she took the top off, the cup, the entire contents tipped in her lap.
8.  Her sweatpants absorbed the hot coffee, holding it to her skin, and she suffered 3rd degree burns over 6% of her body.

The jury awarded the grandmother, who had to have several painful skingrafts, what amount to 2 days coffee purchases (2.7 million), but the judge reduced the award of punitive damages to 480,000.  She also received money to pay for her medical bills and pain in suffering in the amount of 160,000.  After the trial, McDonald's dropped it's corporate policy and coffee was brewed at 155 degrees, which allows for the coffee to cool and avoids serious burns.

A woman who suffered serious burns...... And if McDonalds can offer free coffee for 10 days, can you imagine?  For some reason I found this campaign ironic and absurd.  McDonald's fought tooth and nail against a serious injury when the facts pointed to that their policy was dangerous.  I find it turning my stomach, that 20 years almost to the anniversary of the severe burn, McDonald's can give their coffee away from free.  While the lawsuit changed their corporate policy, and gave them what results to a little pat, shrug, and poke of the elbow "don't do that again," the ones that lose out on this are really the plaintiffs.

Why did the Plaintiff lose out????  Simple. I am not talking about the grandmother.  I am talking about future plaintiffs.  The conservative right, has used this case erroneously as to why there should be tort reform.  This case is the "banner" case of the argument about frivolous lawsuits.  Yet, how often do we hear the truth?  We don't.

Perhaps I write this because I am clearly starting to see how mega corporations like McDonalds, lobby to great effect against the little guy.  And it is starting to make me feel sick.  Because they use this public sentiment to lie to us, to deceive us, into believing something that is only partially true.  In this case, the lady spilled her coffee and she must of known it was hot!  There is a warning on the top of the coffee cup after all...... what one does not expect is to have any more than a mild red spot and an ouch -- we don't expect to have 3rd degree burns.  But we the public do not remember the FACTs, we remember the SPIN.

Well I remembered.  And said NO, to that cup of coffee.


  1. Thank you thank you THANK YOU for this post. After studying this case in torts, I was outraged to hear about what happened to the victim in the case. My personal favorite was knowing that Mc D's testified that they knew people would get hurt, but that due to the "mass amount of sales" that they figured they could hedge their bets. I wouldn't want their free coffee, either.

  2. Lisa - it's funny that you posted this... Joe, me, and Jeremy had this conversation the other day... Great minds think alike!

  3. Lisa!! When you hadn't posted in sometime, I stopped dropping by as regularly - glad to see your back!!

    This is C-R-A-Z-Y because I PROMISE I was thinking about this case this morning!!! I stopped at Dunkin' Doughnuts for coffee and the coffee was so hot that I couldn't even hold the cup for 10 minutes, which I really didn't appreciate because I am in the middle of finals and REALLY needed my coffee ASAP(no cardboard protector either)!!

    Not only was I thinking about this McDonald's case but, like you, I also thought about how that case became the "poster child" for frivolous lawsuits and an out-of-control judicial system. All of the jokes I've heard about how this county is so crazy that you can sue over a hot cup of coffee, when really this woman was seriously injured thanks to supreme neglegence. The most unexpected and eye-opening realization I have had in law school is just how much the public is COMPLETELY unaware of when it comes to these cases.

    On another note, glad your medical issues have been somewhat controlled and that you're doing ok :) If it helps, you still remain one of my main influences in my decision to tackle law school along with single motherhood! I'm at the end of my 2nd year and a LOT of things you said on here were very instrumental in preparing me for this journey! So . . . a very big thank you from Atlanta, GA :)