Hot Coffee at McDonald’s
CASE 6.2 Hot Coffee at McDonald’s
To aficionados of the bean, there’s nothing like a piping- hot cup of java to get the day off to a good
start, and nothing more insipid than lukewarm coffee. That’s what McDonald’s thought, anyway— until it
learned differently, the hard and expensive way, when seventy- nine- year- old Stella Liebeck successfully
sued the company after she was burned by a spilled cup of hot coffee that she’d bought at the drive-
through window of her local McDonald’s. The jury awarded her $ 160,000 in compensatory damages and a
whopping $ 2.7 million in punitive damages. After the trial judge reduced the punitive damages to $
480,000, she and McDonald’s set-tled out of court for an undisclosed sum. 105 Unlike the outcome of
most other lawsuits, the hot- coffee verdict received nationwide attention, most of it unfavorable. To
many ordinary people, the case epitomized the excesses of a legal system out of control. If hot coffee is
dangerous, what’s next: soft drinks that are too cold? To conservatives, the case represented the all-
too- familiar failure of consumers to take responsibility for their own conduct, to blame business rather
than themselves for their injuries. More policy- oriented pundits used the case as an occasion to call for
reform of product liability law— in particular, to make winning frivolous suits more difficult and to
restrict the punitive awards that juries can hand down. However, those who examined the facts more
closely learned that the Liebeck case was more complicated than it first appeared. For one thing,
Liebeck suffered third- degree burns on her thighs and buttocks that were serious enough to require skin
grafting and leave permanent scars. After her injury, she initially requested $ 10,000 for medical
expenses and an additional amount for pain and suffering. When McDonald’s refused, she went to court,
asking for $ 300,000. Lawyers for the company argued in response that McDonald’s coffee was not
unreasonably hot and that Liebeck was responsible for her own injuries. The jury saw it differently,
however. First, McDonald’s served its coffee at 185 degrees Fahrenheit, significantly hotter than home-
brewed coffee. The jury was persuaded that coffee at that temperature is both undrinkable and more
dangerous than a reasonable consumer would expect. Second, before Liebeck’s accident, the company
had received over seven hundred com-plaints about burns from its coffee. In response to the com-
plaints, McDonald’s had in fact put a warning label on its cups and designed a tighter- fitting lid for
them. Ironically, the new lid was part of the problem in the Liebeck case because she had held the coffee
cup between her legs in an effort to pry it open. Although the jury found that Liebeck was 20 percent
responsible for her injuries, it also concluded that McDonald’s had not done enough to warn consumers.
The jury’s $ 2.7 mil-lion punitive- damage award was intended, jurors later said, to send a message to
fast- food chains. Although the judge reduced the award— equivalent to only about two days’ worth of
coffee sales for McDonald’s— he called McDonald’s conduct “ willful, wanton, reckless, and callous.”
1. Is hot coffee so dangerous, as the jury thought? Should a reasonable consumer be expected to know
that coffee can burn and to have assumed this risk? Is a warning label sufficient? Is our society too
protective of consumers these days, or not protective enough?
2. In serving such hot coffee, did McDonald’s act in a morally responsible way? What ideals, obligations,
and effects should it have taken into consideration?
3. McDonald’s claims that most consumers would prefer to have their coffee too hot rather than not hot
enough. After all, if it’s too hot, they can always wait a minute before drinking it. Suppose this is true.
How does it affect McDonald’s responsibilities? Given that McDonald’s serves millions of cups of coffee
every week, how important are a few hundred complaints about its coffee being too hot?
4. Was Liebeck only 20 percent responsible for her injuries? Do you agree with the amount of
compensatory and punitive damages that the jury awarded her? If not, what would have been a fairer
5. Should juries be permitted to award punitive damages in product liability cases? If so, should there be
a limit to what they can award? Is it right for a jury to award punitive damages against one company in
order to send a message to a whole industry?
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