Media version:


79-year old Stella Liebeck and her grandson stopped by a McDonald's drive-through. Liebeck bought a cup of coffee, served in a styrofoam cup. She was sitting in the back seat of the car. When they had pulled out of the driveway, the grandson stopped for a moment so Liebeck could open the lid and put sugar and cream in her coffee (note: I've read several newspaper articles claiming that she was trying to open the cup while driving). The lid was stuck, so she tried to hold the cup with her knees while pulling the lid open with both her hands (which is very understandable, seeing as she's a weak elderly woman). As she removed the lid, the contents of the cup were spilled in her lap.

She was wearing a pair of sweatpants, which absorbed the coffee, and held it next to her skin.

Now, here's the kicker: THE COFFEE WAS NOT HOT.


The coffee was around 85° C (185° F). Normal household coffee is about 60° C (140° F).

The coffee gave her third-degree burns over 6% of her body - her inner thighs, groin and buttocks. She had to be hospitalized for over a week, and had to undergo skin grafting. She had to pay 11 000 dollars for the treatment. And she's still crippled.

Liebeck sought to settle her claim for $20 000. McDonald's refused. They actually countered with an offer of 800 bucks.

During discovery, more than 700 claims from other people burned by McDonald's scalding coffee were produced. Many of them had stories similar to that of Stella Liebeck's. Before this was made known, McDonald's representatives lied to the court and jury about the existence of other claims. The claims documented that McDonald's were fully aware of the problem and its extent. McDonald's Quality Assurancy Manager also admitted during discovery that their POLICY was to hold their coffee at about 85° C in the pot (give or take a few degrees). This was based on a consultant's advice - he said that it'd maintain optimum taste longer after being taken out of the pot. Any coffee served directly from the pot WOULD in most cases cause burns to mouth and throat, and they knew it. The manager also testified that there is a burn hazard with any food/drink served at above 60° C (140° F), and that McDonald's coffee WAS NOT at all FIT FOR CONSUMPTION. He also testified that McDonald's had no intention to lower their holding temperature.

Other testimony showed that liquids at 85° would cause a full thickness burn to human skin in 2-7 seconds.

The jury awarded Liebeck 200 000 dollars, which was then reduced to 160 000 - the jury found Liebeck 20% at fault in the spill. The jury also awarded Liebeck $2,7 million in punitive damages. This sounds like a lot of money, but keep in mind that McDonald's makes 1,3 million dollars daily on coffee ONLY.

The trial court reduced the punitive award to $480,000 - or three times compensatory damages - even though the judge called McDonalds' conduct reckless, callous and willful.

Now, this is what really gets to me. The media has constantly said that "This is a sign of how bad things are in the US today blah blah blah people get awarded money for not knowing that you shouldn't spill coffee in your lap blah blah blah lawyers are morons blah blah blah only the newbie journalists check their facts first".

The thing that's REALLY a sign of how bad things are today is the fact that the media can not only lie to the general public, but also keep the truth quiet so effectively that EVEN THOUGH THE INFORMATION HAS BEEN READILY AVAILIBLE FOR YEARS, your average John Doe will still think that it was all a clumsy lady taking advantage of a broken system.


Update 9/22 2001:
aiken: I don't think you understand. Let's say Procter & Gamble decide that "Hey, if we put hydrochloric acid in our shampoo, then it'll clean better!" So they do it. And then someone accidentally gets shampoo in his eyes while in the shower and goes blind. Would you really say that it's HIS fault - "He should suit himself for not knowing that you shouldn't get shampoo in your eyes". I've spilled coffee on my knee. I've gotten shampoo in my eyes. When I spilled coffee I was damn glad that some asshole didn't make my coffee so hot that I became CRIPPLED. Yes, CRIPPLED. That's THIRD DEGREE BURNS we're talking about.

People make mistakes. Accidents happen. Even brain surgeons make mistakes. Even noders make mistakes. If you give out millions of cups of coffee every day, thousands of people - even reasonably careful ones - are going to end up spilling it. Any product (like coffee at 85 degrees Centigrade) that can inflict major bodily harm as a result of a common and easily-made mistake is criminally dangerous; most such products have been banned.

To go into this in a little more detail: people will immediately bring up counterexamples of chainsaws, knives, drills and such like. Clearly, for each type of product, there is a level of caution and training that is generally agreed to be needed for anyone to use it safely. And these devices have safety features thrown in, for example the sticking-out bit of plastic or metal that stops your fingers slipping onto the blade of a carving knife. By contrast, a hammer isn't going to cause major tissue damage if accidentally misapplied, so hammers have no major safety features and people swing them around with abandon. (Or at least, the level of tissue damage is predictable and strictly proportional to the force applied by the user.)

Also, the level of carefulness that can be expected from the user is different in different situations: you would be crazy to (for example) serve takeaway half chickens with complimentary carving knife from a drive-in restaurant, since although a carving knife is perfectly safe when used on a sturdy, stationary table, it is a hazard when passed through the window of a vehicle.

So, to return to the case under discussion. What is the level of care and attention that one can reasonably expect from someone at a drive-through? Pretty low. Customers (at least those not in trucks/SUVs) are in an awkward position without much freedom of movement, trying to take their food and drink from the side and above through a relatively small window. Inside the car, there are precious few flat, solid surfaces to put things on. This makes spillages much more likely (hence the large number of similar cases of scalding due to McDonald's coffee) and makes it imperative that anything spillable not be dangerous.

And what is the level of caution and training necessary to "use" a cup of coffee? At the usual temperature (60 degrees Centigrade), again the answer is, pretty low. Suppose you ask, if the woman had been in the habit of putting coffee between her legs, why had such an accident not happened before? The answer is, even if it had happened before, it would not have mattered - if the temperature had been that recommended by the manufacturer of the coffee machine, rather than 25 degrees (45 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter! It would have been a nasty shock but no skin grafts would been required. In doing what she did, the woman almost certainly allowed for a small risk of spilling the coffee, and balanced it against the benefits of adding sugar and cream. This was a reasonable decision, on the reasonable assumption, based on previous experience that the coffee would not be hot enough to cause serious burns. You don't get to age 79 without being able to assess risk. In fact, the same accident could happen to anyone who has wrestled with the lid of a coffee cup trying to add sugar and cream.

Particularly important in the trial was the evidence of McDonald's design engineers, who developed the lid in question. They had to admit that they couldn't operate the lid properly themselves without risking spillage. Clearly, the lid is intended as a safety feature: it should prevent spillage when on, making it more acceptable to serve coffee at high temperatures, and should be removable without excessive effort. However, McDonald's own designers knew that it didn't live up to this specification. One might make an analogy with a saw blade: suppose a company sold (without instructions) a saw with a blade that either fell out unexpectedly, or was so awkward to remove that many users ended up cutting themselves.

Then we come to the little signs "Warning. This product may be hot" or suchlike. Do they alter the morality of the situation? Not much, since a) everyone ignores them or treats them as a joke (even some McDonald's employees), and b) there is "hot" and there is so-hot-that-it-readily-causes-third-degree-burns, and it's not clear which is meant.

And the moral of the story is - Products are made for real human beings, not for idealised perfect beings who never make mistakes; people are not made for products.

The intention of this writeup is to put the case into the context of what happens in other situations where products are potentially dangerous, to make it clear what principles are involved in deciding who has the moral advantage, and to show what is a reasonable analogy and what is not.

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