Join Autos’s Facebook group
Follow Autos on Twitter

By Jordan W. Charness

Have you ever heard of Stella Leibek of Albuquerque, New Mexico? You’ve probably heard her story floating around the Internet and wondered whether or not it was true. Hers is a truly bizarre automotive legal story.

She was the lady who sued McDonald’s after she was burned by a cup of McDonald’s coffee that she spilled on her lap while she was sitting in her car. There are various versions of the story going around that she was either driving the car at the time or simply parked and adding sugar and cream.

As the story has been sent to me several times in various forms, I thought that I would bring it to your attention along with the real facts of the story as taken from the web site of the Consumer Attorneys of California. They are a large group of attorneys dedicated to protecting consumer rights in the big old United States.

Although the story happened way back in 1992 it stands as a milestone for how some events are handled in the U.S. At the end of this column I will tell you what we would do with it in Canada.

“Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car when she was severely burned by McDonald’s coffee in February, 1992. Liebeck, 79 at the time, ordered coffee that was served in a Styrofoam cup at the drive-through window of a local McDonald’s.

After receiving the order, the grandson pulled his car forward and stopped momentarily so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. (Critics of civil justice, who have pounced on this case, often charge that Liebeck was driving the car or that the vehicle was in motion when she spilled the coffee; neither is true.) Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup. As she removed the lid, the entire contents of the cup spilled into her lap.

The sweatpants Liebeck was wearing absorbed the coffee and held it next to her skin. A vascular surgeon determined that Liebeck suffered full thickness burns (or third-degree burns) over six per cent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting. Liebeck, who also underwent debridement treatments, sought to settle her claim for $20,000, but McDonald’s refused.

During discovery, McDonald’s produced documents showing more than 700 claims by people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some claims involved third-degree burns substantially similar to Liebeck’s. This history documented McDonald’s knowledge about the extent and nature of this hazard.

McDonalds also said during discovery that, based on a consultant’s advice, it held its coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain optimum taste. He admitted that he had not evaluated the safety ramifications at this temperature. Other establishments sell coffee at substantially lower temperatures, and coffee served at home is generally 135 to 140 degrees.

Further, McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that the company actively enforces a requirement that coffee be held in the pot at 185 degrees, plus or minus five degrees. He also testified that a burn hazard exists with any food substance served at 140 degrees or above, and that McDonald’s coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into Styrofoam cups, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat. The quality assurance manager admitted that burns would occur, but testified that McDonalds had no intention of reducing the “holding temperature” of its coffee.

Plaintiff’s expert, a scholar in thermodynamics as applied to human skin burns, testified that liquids, at 180 degrees, will cause a full thickness burn to human skin in two to seven seconds. Other testimony showed that as the temperature decreases toward 155 degrees, the extent of the burn relative to that temperature decreases exponentially. Thus, if Liebeck’s spill had involved coffee at 155 degrees, the liquid would have cooled and given her time to avoid a serious burn.

McDonalds asserted that customers buy coffee on their way to work or home, intending to consume it there. However, the company’s own research showed that customers intend to consume the coffee immediately while driving.

McDonalds also argued that consumers know coffee is hot and that its customers want it that way. The company admitted its customers were unaware that they could suffer third-degree burns from the coffee and that a statement on the side of the cup was not a “warning” but a “reminder” since the location of the writing would not warn customers of the hazard.

The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. This amount was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Liebeck 20 per cent at fault in the spill. The jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which equals about two days of McDonalds coffee sales.

Post-verdict investigation found that the temperature of coffee at the local Albuquerque McDonalds had dropped to 158 degrees Fahrenheit. The trial court subsequently reduced the punitive award to $480,000 — or three times compensatory damages — even though the judge called McDonald’s conduct reckless, callous and wilful.

No one will ever know the final ending to this case. The parties eventually entered into a secret settlement which has never been revealed to the public. ”

So would a similar verdict be awarded in Canada? Not likely. In the first-place, none of our civil suits are ever judged by juries. It is up to a judge to decide on the law and any award that may be given. Our judges would likely have thrown out all of the above cases.

In addition any case involving the attribution of fault and an award for damages will lead to an award significantly lower than that awarded in the United States. Burned thighs, while painful, would lead to an award of a few thousand dollars but nowhere near the 160,000 dollars awarded to Stella in Albuquerque.

Our court systems are just getting around to the idea of punitive damages now but would probably not award half a million dollars as punitive damages in a similar case.

By and large, our awards for bodily injuries are too low while the U.S. courts tend to award obscenely high amounts. Somewhere in the middle would make a lot more sense and would increase the average person’s respect for the legal system.

Connect with