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McDonald’s Callousness Was Real Issue, Jurors Say, In Case of Burned Woman

The Wall Street Journal article “McDonald’s Callousness Was Real Issue, Jurors Say, In Case of Burned Woman” sheds some much-needed light on the McDonald’s coffee case.

When a law firm here found itself defending McDonald’s Corp. in a suit last year that claimed the company served dangerously hot coffee, it hired a law student to take temperatures at other local restaurants for comparison.

After dutifully slipping a thermometer into steaming cups and mugs all over the city, Danny Jarrett found that none came closer than about 20 degrees to the temperature at which McDonald’s coffee is poured, about 180 degrees.

Despite these findings, McDonald’s refused to settle out of court. Apparently, they didn’t think a jury would “punish a company for serving coffee the way customers like it.” And at first, that’s how jurists felt. Then they learned the facts.

What the jury didn’t realize initially was the severity of her burns. Told during the trial of Mrs. Liebeck’s seven days in the hospital and her skin grafts, and shown gruesome photographs, jurors began taking the matter more seriously. “It made me come home and tell my wife and daughters don’t drink coffee in the car, at least not hot,” says juror Jack Elliott.

Even more eye-opening was the revelation that McDonald’s had seen such injuries many times before. Company documents showed that in the past decade McDonald’s had received at least 700 reports of coffee burns ranging from mild to third degree, and had settled claims arising from scalding injuries for more than $500,000.


Enter callousness:

Some observers wonder why McDonald’s, after years of settling coffee-burn cases, chose to take this one to trial. After all, the plaintiff was a sympathetic figure – an articulate, 81-year-old former department store clerk who said under oath that she had never filed suit before. In fact, she said, she never would have filed this one if McDonald’s hadn’t dismissed her requests for compensation for pain and medical bills with an offer of $800.

But McDonald’s didn’t bite.

As the trial date approached, McDonald’s declined to settle. At one point, Mr. Morgan says he offered to drop the case for $300,000, and was willing to accept half that amount.
Instead, McDonald’s continued denying any liability for Mrs. Liebeck’s burns. The company suggested that she may have contributed to her injuries by holding the cup between her legs and not removing her clothing immediately. And it also argued that “Mrs. Liebeck’s age may have caused her injuries to have been worse than they might have been in a younger individual,” since older skin is thinner and more vulnerable to injury.

Facts + callousness = overwhelming verdict

When the panel reached the jury room, it swiftly arrived at the conclusion that McDonald’s was liable. “The facts were so overwhelmingly against the company,” says Ms. Farnham. “They were not taking care of their consumers.”

Then the six men and six women decided on compensatory damages of $200,000, which they reduced to $160,000 after determining that 20% of the fault belonged with Mrs. Liebeck for spilling the coffee.