The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case: Revisiting The Eyewitness Trial Testimony

One chilly morning in February of 1992, a routine purchase of a cup of coffee in Albuquerque, New Mexico forever transformed the tort reform debate. As a result of the spill of that cup of coffee, 79 year old Stella Liebeck would become the world’s most famous civil litigant. Twenty years ago this week, in August of 1994, Liebeck took her case to a Bernalillo County jury, which awarded her $200,000 in actual damages (reduced by 20 percent due to a comparative fault finding) and $2.7 million in punitive damages. The court later ordered that a new trial would be held due to the “excessive” amount of punitive damages unless the Plaintiff accepted a remittitur of the punitive damages award to $480,000. A few months later, the case settled for a confidential amount, forever establishing it as a fixture of litigation lore and urban legend.

The two week trial would become the most discussed civil case of its time and fodder for late night comedians. Despite the passage of two decades, the underlying facts of the case continue to be debated and myths abound, in part, because there is no widely accessible official account of the case. Because the case settled a few months after its notorious verdict, no appellate court issued an opinion setting forth its key facts and legal issues. Even today, civil litigation is not often covered in detail in the media, and in 1994, the nascent Internet had yet to provide access to online dockets, pleadings, and the like.  So it was that a 1994 Wall Street Journal article and the late night talk shows shaped the opinions of the case for years to come.

In his opening statement, Liebeck’s attorney explained to the jury that Liebeck “received this eight ounce cup of coffee handed to her by her grandson, and placed it in between her knees to hold it because she had difficulty in removing the plastic lid.” Of course, the trial involved a host of expert opinions, warning issues, and damages testimony. But, at its essence, the case involved the actions of Liebeck. All these years later, the trial testimony of Liebeck and her 30 year old grandson, Chris Tiano, are helpful in dispelling the myths that have arisen over the years.

First and foremost, despite what you may have read, Liebeck was not driving the vehicle. In fact, Tiano was driving the 1989 Ford Probe as they ordered breakfast that morning. Liebeck was in the front passenger seat. The two had just driven Liebeck’s brother from Santa Fe to Albuquerque to drop him off at the airport. After that errand, they visited the drive-through of the McDonald’s on Gibson Boulevard. At trial, Tiano estimated that they at the restaurant sometime before 8:30 a.m. that fateful Thursday morning. On August 9, 1994, Tiano, the first trial witness, recalled that they “ordered a couple of value meals,” with him ordering a Sausage McMuffin and orange juice and his grandmother choosing an Egg McMuffin and a coffee. Liebeck testified that Tiano requested the cream and sugar for her coffee. He drove to the window and the McDonald’s employee “handed the drinks out first” and he “handed it over” to Liebeck. The next day of trial, August 10, Liebeck testified that she did not believe that Tiano requested a cardboard tray for the beverages.

The vehicle was not in motion when Liebeck spilled coffee on herself. After taking the drinks and bag of food, Tiano drove from the drive-through to a parking space in the McDonald’s lot. Liebeck testified that Tiano parked “so [she] could put cream in [her] coffee.” On cross examination, Liebeck agreed that the cup’s lid was on “pretty snug” and that the cup did not leak at the time it was handed to her.  She did not notice the pull away tab on the lid (which existed, the defense contended, to permit the addition of cream and sugar to the coffee). Tiano testified that Liebeck “started to fix her coffee” as he was “trying to get [his] meal organized” because he “had to run some errands that morning.” Specifically, Tiano planned to visit the Albuquerque Country Club so that he, an assistant golf professional, could pick up a check for his golf pro father.

Liebeck positioned the cup of coffee between her legs in an attempt to open the lid to add cream and sugar.  Liebeck testified that she initially looked for somewhere else to put the cup of coffee before deciding to hold it between her knees. On that point, she testified that she “took the cup and [she] tried to get the top off” but she “couldn’t hold it, so [she] put it between [her] knees and tried to get the top off that way.” In so doing, she “accidentally” spilled the coffee into her lap when the lid “slid” and “tipped off.”  When asked on cross if she still felt it was wise to hold a cup of hot coffee between one’s knees, she replied that doing so was “just a normal thing to do” as she “wouldn’t expect [the lid] to slide over.” Immediately after the spill, Liebeck felt “excruciating, searing pain.”  Tiano testified that he “looked over” after Liebeck “started screaming” and saw “the cup was inward.” Liebeck testified: “I went into shock. I became all clammy, cold, and was fainting and throwing up or I thought I was throwing up.” The photographs of Liebeck’s injuries – made public in the recent HBO documentary “Hot Coffee” – illustrate the severity of the injuries sustained by Liebeck as a result of the spill.

After the spill, Liebeck and Tiano did not return to the McDonald’s for assistance. Neither Tiano nor Liebeck testified that they returned to the McDonald’s to seek help after the spill. Tiano exited his side of the vehicle and ran to the other side to investigate the reason for his grandmother’s pain and discomfort.  He testified that he shouted to his grandmother that “it’s just coffee. It’s just a hot water burn, nothing serious.”  He further testified that he “let her walk around in the chilly air” and  “she cooled off and got back into the car.” He “thought everything was fine” and the two then “drove down the road” to address his aforementioned errands. At least during their trial testimony, neither of the two witnesses mentioned seeking help from the employees of the McDonald’s franchise.

After leaving the McDonald’s parking lot, Tiano and Liebeck did not immediately seek medical care. Tiano proceeded to the Albuquerque Country Club as planned, and as he testified at trial, Liebeck began to feel nauseous, but he was “still not thinking it’s very serious.” Tiano stopped the vehicle on the side of the road because Liebeck felt she might vomit. As they were stopped, an observant resident emerged from her home to see if they wanted her to call 911. They declined and proceeded again to the country club. Once there, Tiano testified that he left Liebeck in the car as he went to retrieve the check. It was only when he returned to the vehicle that Liebeck requested that they find a local fire station to seek first aid. Ultimately, they drove to Northside Presbyterian Hospital, where she was seen immediately for medical treatment.

20 Years of McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case Rhetoric

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Since the birth of Abnormal Use way back in 2010, we have written much about Stella Liebeck and the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee case. There was no conscious plan to focus on this matter, but sometimes, things simply fall into place. When we published our initial post on Susan Saladoff’s “Hot Coffee documentary back on January 24, 2011, and our accompanying Stella Liebeck FAQ file the following day, we did not predict we would revisit the case as often as we ultimately have. However, within just a few months, those posts generated a friendly retort from a popular social justice blog, a shoutout on National Public Radio, and a mention in, of all things, The New York Times. Abnormal Use would never be the same, and as the years have passed, we have attempted to learn as much as we can about the underling facts and procedural history of the case. This week, in recognition of the twentieth anniversary of the hot coffee trial, we here at Abnormal Use are offering you some additional thoughts on the case and its legacy.

What is it about a 20 year old New Mexico jury trial that continues to create so much furor today? Sure, the case has crept into our vernacular through its references in pop culture, but why? It is ludicrous when one thinks about the hundreds, if not thousands, of personal injury cases that are filed each and every day, many of which involve allegedly defective products, yet the one that garners the most attention is the one about a single cup of coffee. Certainly, the initial media coverage of a litigant receiving millions of dollars due to a hot coffee spill created much public buzz. The subsequent propaganda – from supporters and opponents of tort reform alike – infused the case with additional life as each side attempted to spin the case facts in its own favor. As Internet blogs continue to revisit the litigation, nearly every one has an opinion on the case.

One need only visit at the comments section of Abnormal Use as evidence of the passion surrounding the case. In fact, our hot coffee posts continue to garner comments – sometimes many years after the dates of those posts’ initial publication. While the readers of Abnormal Use may not be a perfect representative sample of the general populace, those comments are certainly evidence that the hot coffee case is far from ordinary.

The more surprising component of the case is its polarity. It seems that one cannot now engage in an objective discussion of the case without first declaring one’s self, “Team Liebeck” or “Team McDonald’s” (or, worse, “Team Tort Reform” or “Team Social Justice”). The caustic nature of the debate is worsened by a general lack of public knowledge of the true facts of the case. Additionally, many advocates stress only those “facts” they chooses to hear while ignoring others that don’t fit nicely into their theory of the case (suggesting that all of us will continue to relitigate the case well into the future).

The opinions on the case tend to fall into one of two categories. There are those who stress the liability issues and those who focus on the damages. The talking points for both camps have been rehashed and recycled many, many times (often without reference to the specific motions or testimony in the case). Yet, each camp has its flaws. Those who argue Liebeck’s contributory negligence run the risk of seeming unsympathetic to her rather severe injuries. Conversely, those who focus on those horrific injuries often overlook the fact that damages are only one element of a negligence claim – an element that is not addressed unless it is first shown that the defendant’s conduct was, in fact, negligent. Neither side is necessarily disingenuous; however, they don’t always see the whole picture of the case when focusing on singular components.

In looking back over the past 20 years, what is the real effect of the Liebeck verdict? Other than providing talking points for lawyers and staking a claim in pop culture, not much. People still drink coffee. They still like their coffee to be served piping hot. Restaurants still serve coffee at temperatures within the range served to Liebeck by McDonald’s in New Mexico that fateful day in February of 1992. At the end of the day, Liebeck v. McDonald’s has provided us with a discourse to advocate for certain platforms. This is not to say that the hot coffee case doesn’t remain important after 20 years. But in the end, these days, it’s mostly just rhetoric.

20 Years Ago This Week: The Stella Liebeck McDonald’s Hot Coffee Trial

As we noted last Friday, August 2014 heralds the twentieth anniversary of one of the most famous civil cases in American history: the Stella Liebeck McDonald’s hot coffee case. Tried on August 8-12 and 15-17, 1994 in New Mexico state court, the case produced a verdict that has continued to reverberate throughout our culture. (Reminder: Liebeck was awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages, a number which was reduced to $160,000 as a result of a patrial contributory negligence finding by the jury. She was also awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages, a figure which was later reduced to $480,000 by the court.). As we have noted in the past, the case settled prior to the issuance of a formal appellate court opinion, and thus, there is no helpful formal account of the matter’s factual and procedural history. This has led to some confusion surrounding the facts, which we’ve attempted to remedy by publishing our Stella Liebeck McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case FAQ. This week, in observance of the trial’s 20th anniversary, we will explore the case in a bit more detail than usual and offer some critical thoughts that go beyond the traditional rhetoric.

Why do so? As the years have passed, the conventional wisdom about the case has begun to shift. For the longest time, the story represented the tale of a negligent consumer who received a large verdict from a sympathetic jury despite her clear contributory negligence. Now, however, a new narrative has emerged. There is now a group that believes that the uproar over the verdict was the result of a nefarious corporate strategy to misrepresent the true underlying facts of the case in an effort promote tort reform. This new line of thinking gained traction with the 2011 release of Susan Saladoff’s editorial documentary, “Hot Coffee.”

Not too long ago, we noticed that one of our favorite blogs, the popular and influential Boing Boing, revisited the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit. In that post, author Cory Doctorow, in introducing a linked piece by Alex Mayyasi of Priceonomics, noted as follows: “Remember the old lady who sued McDonald’s for millions because she burned herself by spilling hot coffee in her lap? It never happened. What actually happened was much more sordid, and the deliberate distortion of the story — which is ultimately about a company that caused repeated, horrific and preventable injury to its customers — is a tidy story about how corporations have convinced us that they are victims of out-of-control tort lawyers.” In his article, Mayyasi argues that the verdict led to efforts to erode the Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial. Countering the argument that the case is an example of the need for tort reform, Mayyashi contends that the traditional understanding of the Liebeck case is “incredibly distorted.,” as Liebeck herself “was not greedy and her lawsuit was not frivolous.” He goes so far to conclude that the Liebeck case is “an example of America’s civil justice system working as intended.”

In his piece, Mayyasi relies a good bit on Saladoff, a former plaintiff’s attorney about whom we have previously written here. In so doing, Mayyashi shares Saladoff’s belief that “frivolous lawsuits” are a “myth.” (Were that truly the case, we’d have little to discuss here at Abnormal Use.). To his credit, Mayyasi identifies Saladoff as a “former trial lawyer” who has “represented clients in liability lawsuits” and suggests later in the article that “as a trial lawyer . . . [she] is not an objective outsider but someone building a case for her side.” (Many media outlets, in reviewing or reporting on “Hot Coffee,” neglected to mention Saladoff’s history.). Further, despite Doctorow’s tough introduction to the piece, Mayyasi concedes several points, including the fact that “[c]offee is often served commercially at temperatures approaching or equal to that served to Stella Liebeck; finding Liebeck 80% or 100% responsible may be reasonable.” He also indicates that the McDonald’s representatives’ purported lack of concern about the alleged 700 complaints of hot beverage related incidents “may have seen reasonable given the scale of McDonald’s operation.” Those are some significant statements in a piece dedicated to Liebeck case and the purported erosion of the right to a jury trial.

Here’s how Mayyasi’s described the facts of the Liebeck case:

 After Ms. Liebeck bought her coffee and breakfast, her grandson, who was driving, pulled over so she could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Since his Ford Probe had no cup holders, she placed the cup between her legs. When she fumbled with the lid and spilled the coffee on her sweatpants, she began to scream.

….

She went into shock and her grandson rushed her to the emergency room, where she would undergo surgery and receive skin grafts. She had third degree burns on 6% of her body; the pictures of her injuries are shocking.

It is the gruesome photographs of Ms. Liebeck’s injuries – recently receiving prominence in Saladoff’s documentary – which have convinced many that Ms. Liebeck’s case must have had some merit. Despite the severity of her injuries, Liebeck elected to place the cup of coffee – with its warning “contents hot” emblazoned thereupon – precariously between her legs in attempt to open it and place her cream and sugar therein. How is it a distortion to recite those facts and argue that Liebeck’s contributory negligence should have barred her recovery outright? Can one not argue that the jury got it wrong, or that the defense should have presented a better case with the facts as known? (Interestingly, it is not entirely correct to say that “[Liebeck's] grandson rushed her to the emergency room.” Rather, her grandson, Chris Tiano, testified at the trial that after the spill he traveled to the Albuquerque Country Club to pick up a paycheck before taking his grandmother to the hospital.).

This week, we’ll explore these issues fully and even offer some interesting trivia about the case and even some of the witnesses. We hope you’ll offer your own thoughts on the case, as well.

At Last, A Resolution To Our 2011 Challenge To Reed Morgan, The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Plaintiff’s Attorney

As you know, we here at Abnormal Use like to write about the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee case. Twenty years after it was tried, it remains an interesting piece of litigation, not just because of the facts and its effect on the litigation culture, but also because there are so few primary sources available to the general public. We have a number of secondary and tertiary sources in the form of editorial opinion columns, television documentaries, and the like. However, few commentators rely upon the actual pleadings, motions, and witness testimony in the underlying case. That is why in early, early 2011, we prepared a FAQ file based on some primary sources available to us at that time.

Back in 2011, we were scouring the Earth for a copy of the 1994 trial transcript. It was, of course, unavailable from the court itself, as trial transcripts are not typically filed with the clerk of court (and we doubt that the court reporter would have a 17 year old trial transcript available for order). The case was settled shortly after the trial, so any appellate record would be slight, if existent at all.

Accordingly, on June 28, 2011, we issued a challenge to Reed Morgan, the McDonald’s hot coffee Plaintiff’s attorney, asking him to release the trial transcript (assuming he still had it after all of these years).

You can read that post here. In it, we noted as follows:

 The only parties with access to all relevant information are the McDonald’s corporation and Liebeck’s estate. Despite the protestations of the plaintiff’s bar and Saladoff, the McDonald’s corporation has remained curiously tight-lipped about the case over the past 17 years. There’s no evidence that this major company has engaged in any public relations campaign; and if they had, it has not been very successful, as many people are unaware of the basic facts of the case.

If the plaintiff’s bar truly wishes to expose the “truth” behind the case, then they should look to one of their own: S. Reed Morgan of S. Reed Morgan & Associates (now of the Law Offices of S. Reed Morgan, P.C.) of Comfort, Texas, the lead plaintiff’s attorney who represented Liebeck during the original trial. Presumably, Morgan has a whole host of original material which could shed additional light on the case but which are not currently in the public record. By this, of course, we refer to deposition transcripts, discovery responses, and the trial transcript, none of which is readily available in any form. Allowing the general public, as well as legal scholars and researchers, to review this material would shed much light on the case and allow partisans of any persuasion to use the actual evidence from the actual trial to advance their agendas. (Saladoff had access to at least some of this material, although it’s unclear from whom she obtained it; she told IndieWire that she “was able to secure the transcript of the trial, and then went to Albuquerque where the case was tried, located the family, the lawyers, jurors, the doctor, and started talking to as many people as possible who would talk to me.”)

We never heard from Mr. Morgan in response to the post. Perhaps he never saw it, and we doubt a defense oriented law blog is atop the list of his concerns. To be honest, all these years later, the post had sunk into the deep recesses of our memory until last week when we saw that Mr. Morgan himself had commented on the post. Last Wednesday, almost three years to the day after our original blog post on the issue ran, he post a comment and remarked:

The trial transcript is on record at the court. Any competent lawyer knows this. So I question this so-called “challenge” as written to serve any purpose other than to create an image that I have the transcript. Of course, I do not have it. Reed Morgan

We were very pleased to see that he had read our post all these years later. The following day, we responded to the comment as follows:

Reed, we appreciate your comment and thank you for visiting our site. Over the years (and again, more recently), we have reviewed the documents available from the Civil Division of the Bernalillo County Courthouse where the case was tried in 1994. In fact, the Civil Division maintains a file of 1,070 pages comprised of the pleadings, motions, and other publicly filed documents. Unfortunately, the trial transcript is not one of the documents publicly on file or available for ordering from the court. I suspect that it might have been easier to locate or obtain in 1994, but not in 2011 (when the post to which you were responding was written and published).

In fact, anyone can visit the relevant New Mexico state court website and access its online docketing system. The official website of the State of New Mexico Second Judicial District Court maintains a case look-up function which one can utilize to see the full docket sheet for the Liebeck v. McDonald’s matter. The relevant entry offers a comprehensive accounting of the case, listing all of the hearings that took place in 1993 and 1994 as well as a description of the civil complaint and a register of actions activity ranging from the filing of the complaint on March 12, 1993 all the way to March 28, 2007 (reflecting the ultimate fate of certain exhibits). The bulk of the entries, however, range from 1993 to 1995.

Generally, a trial transcript is not something that one can obtain directly from the trial court by pulling the pleadings on file. Sometimes, when a case is appealed, one might be able to obtain the trial transcript from an appellate court (if the transcript has been requested from the court reporter), but an appeal was not meaningfully pursued in Liebeck because the case resolved in late 1994 just a few months after the verdict. Trust us when we say that in 2011 we looked many, many places to obtain a copy of the trial transcript before issuing our challenge to Reed Morgan. We are elated that he ultimately replied, although all these years later, we are no longer looking for a copy.

The Stella Liebeck McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case FAQ

First entering the public consciousness in 1994, the Stella Liebeck trial, known as the McDonald’s hot coffee case, has become such a fixture of litigation lore that many are unaware of the basic facts of the case, or even where and when it was tried. Litigated and reported upon before the rise of the Internet, much of what appears online about the case is the worst sort of unsourced speculation and conjecture. Our friends at Overlawyered have done an excellent job over the years dispelling the various myths about the case, including those that have arisen suggesting that the industry standard was to serve coffee at temperatures lower than that of McDonald’s. In an effort to publish some of the basic facts of the case, we here at Abnormal Use have created the following FAQ file regarding the matter. In so doing, we have relied solely upon the original pleadings and motions in the case and some contemporary news coverage.

On February 27, 1992, seventy-nine year old department store clerk Stella Liebeck was in the passenger seat of her grandson’s Ford Probe when she ordered a 49 cent cup of coffee at the drive through of a McDonald’s franchise in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Shortly thereafter, she spilled the coffee into her lap and sustained a series of burns. Her original state court lawsuit was filed in March of 1993, tried in August of 1994, and ultimately settled for an undisclosed sum in late 1994. Media coverage of the jury’s original verdict was, shall we say, immense.

Where was the case filed and tried?

The Second Judicial District Court
in Bernalillo County, New Mexico.

What did the complaint allege?

Filed on October 5, 1993 the Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint recited the following allegations:

A. The coffee purchased by her on 2/27/92 was unreasonably dangerous because it was excessively hot and Defendants are liable to her for the physical and mental harm which it caused at the time of its sale and consumption on 2/27/92.

B. The product in question, coffee, was and is routinely sold and manufactured by the Defendants, and it reached Plaintiff in the same condition as it was at the time of the sale; further, Plaintiff in no way is guilty of any fault and the Defendants are strictly liable to Plaintiff under the Restatement of Torts Second, §402(a);

C. The coffee was defectively manufactured, served in a container that had design defects, and the coffee itself was manufactured defectively due to excessive heat; further, the container that it was sold in had no warnings, or had a lack of warnings, rendering the product defectively marketed;

D. The producing cause of Stella Liebeck’s injuries was the exclusive fault of the Defendants;

E. At all material times Defendants were aware of the dangerous condition of the coffee inherent in serving it at the temperature at which it was sold; they knew of the likely consequences of such acts; they knew of the risks involved and acted with a conscious indifference and willful and wanton disregard for the safety of Stella Liebeck and any other consumer of the product;

F. Defendants are expert manufacturers, distributors, and sellers of coffee and had a duty to test and inspect the product for unreasonably dangerous conditions, which they either failed to do, or alternatively, which they did negligently, or in the alternative, did with malice with complete disregard for the dangers inherent in selling coffee at the temperature at which it was sold causing a high probability of severe burns in connection with the sale of the product.

What damages were alleged in the amended complaint?

As set forth in the Amended Complaint, the damages purportedly sustained and sought were:

VI.

As a result of spillage of the defective coffee, Plaintiff sustained burns on her perineum, upper inner thighs, buttocks, genital areas, and lower abdominal wall including the left groin. The burns consisted of both second and third degree burns and were of such severity as to require debridement and skin grafting, causing enormous conscious pain and suffering, mental anguish, and loss of life’s enjoyment, for which she seeks damages. The foregoing treatment caused Plaintiff to incur medical expenses in the past, at the present, and into the reasonable future as follows: (a) past medical expenses: approximately $10,500.00; (b) future medical expenses: approximately $2,500.00. Total: $12,500.00.

VII.

Plaintiff Stella Liebeck was born on XX/XX/12 and was 79 years old at the time of the injury. At the time in question Plaintiff was a healthy, robust, and gainfully employed person, who worked as a sales clerk and earned in excess of $5,000.00 per year; Stella Liebeck has incurred lost earnings of approximately $5,000.00.

IX.

Further, as a direct result of the fault, or in the alternative, the negligence of the Defendants, Plaintiff has sustained severe disfigurement and permanent scarring to her body, which she claims has damaged her in an amount of not less than $100,000.

X.

As a result of the severe and painful burns described herein, Plaintiff sues the Defendants in the amount of $125,000 for physical pain, mental pain and anguish, and loss of life’s enjoyment during the pendency of treatment including skin grafting, debridement, and general recovery from painful scarring, as well as pain and discomfort associated with drawn and tight skin in the scarred areas, which pain and discomfort persists at the present and will persist into the future.

XI.

Plaintiff comes now and sues McDonald’s Corporation and McDonald’s Restaurants P.T.S., Inc. for gross negligence, for willful and wanton disregrad of the rights, safety, and welfare of Stella Liebeck and any other consumers that purchase coffee in the defective state in which it is sold by Defendants, and for the marketing defect of no warning, or in the alternative, insufficient warning, because McDonald’s Corporation and McDonald’s Restaurants P.T.S., Inc. fully know of and are aware of innumerable burn cases caused by the fault, or in the alternative, negligence of their operations in the manufacture, sale, and marketing of extremely hot coffee. For this, Plaintiff comes now and sues in the amount of three times compensatory damages for punitive damages.

What were McDonald’s defenses?

In its Answer to the Amended Complaint, filed on September 22, 1993, McDonald’s asserted the following affirmative defenses:

SECOND DEFENSE

If the Plaintiff was injured and damaged as alleged, then her injuries and damages were the result of her own negligence or of the negligence of a third person or party for whom this Defendant may not be held responsible.

THIRD DEFENSE

If the Plaintiff was injured and damaged as alleged, which is specifically denied, then her injuries or damages were the result of an accident or inadvertence which was not the fault or responsibility of this Defendant.

FOURTH DEFENSE

Plaintiff has failed to mitigate her damages.

FIFTH DEFENSE

Plaintiff should be required to make a prima facie showing of entitlement to punitive damages before any evidence hearing thereupon is adduced before a jury.

SIXTH DEFENSE

Plaintiff’s claims for excessively hot coffee fail to state a claim for which this Court might grant relief.

SEVENTH DEFENSE

At all material times, these Defendants adhered to the applicable standard of care and engaged in reasonable conduct.

Who was sued?

In the original complaint, which was filed on March 21, 1993, Plaintiff only sued P.T.S., Inc., a New Mexico corporation and the local franchise operator. In the amended complaint, however, the McDonald’s corporation was added as a defendant. Ultimately, P.T.S., Inc. was dismissed as a defendant prior to the matter being submitted to the jury.

Where was the McDonald’s franchise in question?

The franchise was located at 5001 Gibson Blvd., S.E., Albuquerque, New Mexico 87108. According to Google Maps, there’s still a McDonald’s franchise at that location: ‎


View Larger Map

Is there a reported opinion?

Yes. The trial court’s original order entering the jury verdict is available on Westlaw as Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, P.T.S., Inc., No. CV-93-02419, 1995 WL 360309, (In the Second Judicial District Court of New Mexico, Bernalillo County, August 14, 1994). However, there is no reported appellate opinion due to a confidential settlement several months after the verdict.

Who was the judge?

The Honorable Robert Hayes Scott was the state court district judge who presided over the case. He is now a United States Magistrate Judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He was initially appointed to the position in 2003.

Who were the Plaintiff’s attorneys?

The lead Plaintiff’s attorney was S. Reed Morgan of S. Reed Morgan & Associates (now of the Law Offices of S. Reed Morgan, P.C.) of Comfort, Texas. Serving as counsel with him were Jerry R. McKenney of Houston, Texas (who at the time of the filing of the original complaint, had been licensed just two years) and local counsel Kenneth R. Wagner of Kenneth R. Wagner & Associates, P.A. (now of Wagner Ford Law, P.A.) in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Who were the defense attorneys?

Bruce Hall, Tracy McGee, Susan S. Throckmorton, and Charles K. Purcell, all of the Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin, & Robb, P.A. firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Now the managing partner of the Albuquerque office of Jackson Lewis, Danny W. Jarrett was then a law clerk at the Rodey firm who executed a summary judgment affidavit setting forth coffee temperature measurements he took at six local restaurants as a part of the defense case.

What were some of the pretrial motions filed in the case?

On January 21, 1994, the defendants moved for summary judgment. The motion was denied. On July 29, 1994, a hearing was conducted on Plaintiff’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. The parties stipulated as to causation of the injuries – that the burns were caused by the coffee. On July 29, 1994, in a letter decision, Judge Scott denied Plaintiff’s motion as to liability.

What was the basis of the McDonald’s motion for summary judgment?

In support of its motion for summary judgment, McDonald’s alleged the following as “undisputed material facts” upon which it based its motion:

1. Plaintiff Stella Liebeck was a passenger in a vehicle which proceeded through the drive-through window of a McDonald’s Restaurant (franchisee P.T.S., Inc.) located at 5001 Gibson, S.E., in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on or about February 27, 1992. Complaint for Damages, Paragraph III.

2. At the time in question, Plaintiff was 79 years old. Complaint for Damages, Paragraph VI.

3. Subsequent to purchasing the coffee, Plaintiff spilled it on herself, sustaining second and third degree burns to her upper inner thighs, buttocks, and other areas of her body. Complaint for Damages, Paragraph VI.

4. Plaintiff has alleged that the coffee was “excessively hot” and “defective” because of its high temperature. Plaintiff’s Complaint, Paragraph IV.

5. The second and third degree burns which Ms. Liebeck sustained could have been sustained at temperatures as low as 130 Fahrenheit. Aff. of Turner M. Osler, M.D., Para. 17.

6. The fact that the coffee that Ms. Liebeck spilled on herself may have been slightly or even significantly hotter than 130° Fahrenheit does not mean that her injuries were worse or more extended than they would have been otherwise. Aff. of Turner M. Osler, M.D., Para. 18.

7. Ms. Liebeck’s age may have caused her injuries to have been worse than they might have been in a younger individual, as the skin of an older person is thinner and heals less easily than the skin of a younger individual; however, even a young adult could have sustained third degree burns after spilling liquid at a temperature of as low as 130° on herself. Aff. of Turner M. Osler, M.D., Para. 19.

8. Unless Ms. Liebeck removed all of her clothing immediately, the clothing may have served to hold in the heat of the spilled liquid, and this may have aggravated the nature and extent of her injury; however, to a reasonable degree of medical probability, she would nevertheless have sustained third degree burns as a result of the coffee spilled. Aff. of Turner M. Osler, M.D., Para. 20.

9. A survey of six (6) fast food or restaurant establishments and two (2) private residences was conducted in September 1993 by Danny Jarrett. Aff. of Danny Jarrett, passim.

10. As part of this survey, Mr. Jarrett used a standard food thermometer and measured the temperature of coffee brewed and maintained at these locations. Aff. of Danny Jarrett, Paras. 3 & 4.

11. Mr. Jarrett’s measurements of coffee were taken when it was first served to him, after approximately 15 minutes, and after approximately 30 minutes. Aff. of Danny Jarrett, passim.

12. The coffee was served to Mr. Jarrett in containers ranging from styrofoam cups to ceramic mugs. Aff. of Danny Jarrett, passim.

13. At no location did Mr. Jarrett record the temperature of freshly served coffee below 130°. Aff. of Danny Jarrett, passim.

After citing several cases in support of its position, McDonald’s argued:

Defendants contend that Ms. Liebeck’s burns were not the result of serving excessively hot coffee, as other restaurants in this community have been demonstrated to serve coffee at temperatures which, for the sake of argument, might be lower than those served at the McDonald’s in question, but which also were high enough temperatures to have still caused the type of injuries and burns that Ms. Liebeck sustained.

It is unclear from the materials currently available whether McDonald’s submitted a memorandum in support of its motion.

What was the Plaintiff’s argument in her summary judgment motion?

In her motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff, after relying upon McDonald’s responses to requests for admission and the deposition testimony of McDonald’s Quality Assurance Group Manager of Administration Christopher D. Appleton, argued:

Plaintiff contends that Defendants have admitted, either through testimony or requests for admission, all elements of products liability and breach of warranty sufficient to prove her case on liability and causation. Moreover, the lack of an adequate warning makes the product defective. The lack of an adequate warning has been admitted by the Defendants. Therefore the product was defective. The defective product caused the burns to Ms. Liebeck’s body. There are no material issues of fact remaining for decision on Plaintiff’s claims of product defect with injuries caused thereby.

Similarly, the Defendants have admitted that the product, when sold, was not fit for its intended purpose, consumption. Accordingly, there no longer exists any material question of fact on the question of whether Defendants breached the implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose; Defendants themselves have admitted the breach.

(Record citations omitted).

When did the case go to trial?

August 8-12 and 15-17, 1994.

Who were the testifying experts?

The defense experts were as follows:

Christopher Appleton (McDonald’s Manager of Quality Assurance). Viewed as an ineffective witness, Mr. Appleton apparently admitted that he was aware of the risk of hot coffee and had no plans to reduce the temperature. (Gerlin, Andrea. “A Matter of Degree,” The Wall Street Journal, September 1, 1994). Further, Mr. Appleton stated that the number of reported burns from McDonald’s coffee in relation to the total number of cups sold was not high enough to justify the modification of the serving temperature.

Dr. P. Robert Knaff (human factors engineer). Dr. Knaff testified that the number of prior coffee burn victims was statistically trivial in comparison to the number of cups sold.

Dr. Turner M. Osler (medical expert). Dr. Osler submitted an affidavit, stating that in his opinion, Ms. Liebeck would have suffered the same extent of burns had she been served coffee at a temperature as low as 130 degrees.

The Plaintiff’s experts were as follows:

Dr. David Arredondo (Mrs. Liebeck’s treating physician). Dr. Arredondo testified as to the extent of Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries. Mrs. Liebeck suffered burns to approximately six percent of her body – 90 percent of which were third-degree burns. Further, he testified that elderly people are more susceptible to burns than younger people due to the thinning of the skin that occurs with age.

Dr. Charles Baxter (burn specialist). Dr. Baxter offered his opinion at trial that coffee served at 180 degrees was excessive and could not be consumed at that temperature. Dr. Baxter opined that the optimal temperature range to serve coffee was between 155 and 160 degrees. (Historical footnote: He operated on President Kennedy and Governor Connally on November 22, 1963).

Dr. Kenneth Diller (thermodynamicist). At his deposition, Dr. Diller testified that, in his opinion, McDonald’s was serving an unreasonably dangerous product when it sold its consumers hot coffee in styrofoam cups without warning of the possibility of sustaining burns.

Dr. Lila F. Laux (psychologist). Dr. Laux testified that the addition of a warning to the McDonald’s coffee would have influenced Mrs. Liebeck’s behavior.

Melissa Patterson (economist). In calculating hedonic damages of $660,900 from the date of Mrs. Liebeck’s injury, Ms. Patterson assumed that Ms. Liebeck lost all enjoyment of life the moment she was burned and would continue to have no enjoyment until her death.

What was the original verdict?

The jury found for the Plaintiff on her claims of product defect, breach of implied warranty, and breach of the implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose. The jury also found that Plaintiff was twenty percent at fault.

What were the damages awarded?

After deliberating four hours, the six man, six woman jury initially awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages, which was reduced by the judge by $40,000 due to the finding of comparative fault. The jury also awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages.

What became of the verdict?

McDonald’s filed post-trial motions. In late August or early September 1994, Judge Scott appointed retired New Mexico Supreme Court Justice William F. Riordan to mediate the dispute and ordered the parties to “make a good faith effort to resolve and completely settle all pending issues.” (“Conference Ordered on Spilled Coffee,” Associated Press, Tulsa World, September 2, 1994, available at 1994 WLNR 5089128). On September 16, 1994, Judge Scott denied McDonald’s motion for new trial and motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, noting that “the compensatory award of $160,000 shall not be disturbed.” However, in that same order, the court noted as follows: “The award of punitive damages of 2.7 million dollars was excessive, as a matter of law. Accordingly, a new trial shall be granted on all issues unless Plaintiff accepts — by written notice to the Court within 25 days of the date of entry of this Order – a remittitur of the punitive damages award as hereby directed by the Court. The remittitur, if accepted, shall reduce the punitive damages award to $480,000, which represents the trebling of the $160,000 award of compensatory damages.” In so doing, Judge Scott commented that the new punitive amount was justified due to “‘willful, wanton, reckless and what the court finds was callous” conduct on the part of McDonald’s. (Associated Press, “Ruling Eases Heat on McDonald’s; Restaurant Will Still Appeal Coffee Verdict,” Wichita Eagle, September 15, 1994, available at 1994 WLNR 823624). At that time, McDonald’s spokesperson Ann Connolly told the Nations’ Restaurant News that “[s]afety is always our first concern, and that is why we have ‘hot contents’ printed as a reminder on our cups. We knew the initial damages awarded were excessive and unjustified, and yesterday the judge acknowledged that and agreed. But we feel they are still excessive, and we will appeal this decision.” “(Judge slashes McD settlement to $480,000: slams chain as ‘callous’ but reduces $2.9M jury decision,” Nation’s Restaurant News, September 26, 1994, available at 1994 WLNR 5313844). In early October of 1994, the New Mexico Supreme Court denied Liebeck’s appeal of the reduction of the punitive award. At that time, McKenney was quoted as saying that “[a] decision has to be made whether to seek a new trial or accept the reduced amount.” (“Court Refuses to Raise Award for Coffee Spill,” The Chicago Tribune, October 14, 1994, available at 1994 WLNR 4335536). On November 3, 1994, Judge Scott denied Plaintiff’s October 21, 1994 motion for reconsideration of the remittitur order. Finally, on November 28, 1994, the court vacated the judgment, presumably due to the confidential settlement which was announced in the media the following week.

What efforts were made to settle the matter?

Liebeck initially approached McDonald’s with a demand of $20,000 to cover her medical bills, future medical expenses, and lost income. McDonald’s countered with an offer of $800. (Gerlin, Andrea. “A Matter of Degree,” The Wall Street Journal, September 1, 1994). As trial approached, Liebeck’s settlement demand increased to approximately $300,000. (Id.). After denying McDonald’s motion for summary judgment, the trial judge ordered the parties to attend mediation. During the session, the mediator recommended that McDonald’s accept a $225,000 offer. (Id.). McDonald’s declined. Following the jury verdict and the trial court’s reduction of the punitive damages award, both parties appealed. Before the case was heard on appeal, the parties settled out-of-court for an undisclosed sum. When the settlement was announced, Wagner claimed that “McDonald’s now (is putting) warnings on its coffees as have some of the other fast food chains. That was her principal objective, to make things safe. Have you ever had McDonald’s coffee? It’s hot, hot hot. It’s as hot as the water in your radiator.” (“McDonald’s settles suit over burns from coffee,” The Houston Chronicle, December 2, 1994, available at 1994 WLNR 5009816).

What was the immediate reaction to the verdict?

The public immediately reacted to the size of the verdict; the consensus was that it was excessive in light of the perceived contributory negligence of the Plaintiff. The media reaction sent the Plaintiff’s bar into damage control mode. On October 24, 1994, The National Law Journal published a letter to the editor from Morgan, who noted as follows:

There has been a great uproar from people displeased at the size of the verdict, who see it as an example of the product of a runaway jury and a plaintiff who will not accept responsibility for her actions.

McDonald’s Corp. sold its coffee at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit by corporate specification. McDonald’s coffee, if spilled, could cause full-thickness burns (third degree to the muscle/fatty tissue layer) in two to seven seconds.

McDonald’s knew about this unacceptable risk for more than 10 years; it was brought to the company’s attention by other lawsuits (more than 700 reported claims from 1982 to 1992). The company’s witnesses testified that it did not intend to turn down the heat. McDonald’s generates revenues in excess of $1.3 million daily from the sale of coffee alone.

Ms. Liebeck’s treating physician testified that this was one of the worst scald burns he had ever seen. Other expert witnesses termed the risk of harm from McDonald’s coffee to be unacceptable.

Most consumers don’t know that coffee this hot causes such injuries. Nor do they know McDonald’s made a practice of serving its coffee this hot.

The jury applied the law of punitive damages to deter McDonald’s and other similarly situated corporations from exposing consumers to this risk. It imposed a penalty of two days’ revenue from coffee sales, or $2.7 million, for willfully ignoring the safety of customers who feed the McDonald’s money tree. The system has numerous methods of overturning a verdict that is excessive.

Why should we tolerate corporate irresponsibility? What’s wrong with penalizing irresponsible behavior that injures consumers?

The news media, the day after the verdict, established that coffee at the McDonald’s in Albuquerque is now sold at 158 degrees. At that temperature, it would take about 60 seconds to cause third-degree burns. Mission accomplished.

(Morgan, Reed. “Verdict Against McDonald’s Is Fully Justified,” The National Law Journal, October 24, 1994, available at 10/24/94 Nat’l L.J. A20).

Morgan had similar letters published in both The Legal Times and the Texas Lawyer. (Reed Morgan, Reed. “McDonald’s Burned Itself,” The Legal Times, September 19, 1994, available at 1994 WLNR 5431838 and Morgan, Reed, “McDonald’s Burned Itself; What’s Wrong With Penalizing Corporate Irresponsibility That Burns And May Kill Our Consumers?,” Texas Lawyer, September 12, 1994, available at 1994 WLNR 5430539).

What was the substance of the McDonald’s post-trial arguments?

In its memorandum in support of its post trial motions, filed on August 29, 1994, McDonald’s argued as follows:

There can be no doubt that potable coffee is, by its very nature, hot. The evidence in this case establishes that there is nothing unique about McDonald’s coffee in this regard: although billions of cups of coffee are consumed without incident every year, all restaurateurs serve coffee at temperatures high enough to cause third-degree burns under certain conditions. Indeed, the courts of New Mexico have cited coffee spillage (not service) as a classic example of a negligent act, presumably because this sort of accident so often has consequences serious enough to merit the law’s attention. The scalding potential of coffee is so well understood that the courts almost take it for granted.

(citations omitted; emphasis in original).

The Wall Street Journal quoted one McDonald’s state court motion as saying: “First-person accounts by sundry women whose nether regions have been scorched by McDonald’s coffee might well be worthy of Oprah. But they have no place in a court of law.” (Gerlin, Andrea. “A Matter of Degree,” The Wall Street Journal, September 1, 1994).

What became of Stella Liebeck?

Born in December of 1912, she died on August 5, 2004 at age 91.

How has popular culture referenced the case?

One of the most famous pop culture parodies of the case is the episode of “Seinfeld” in which Kramer (Michael Richards), burned by a cup of hot coffee, hired flamboyant Plaintiff’s attorney Jackie Chiles (Phil Morris). Plaintiff’s attorney Susan Saladoff recently released Hot Coffee, a documentary on the case and an analysis of the civil justice system, about which we wrote here.

[This FAQ was researched and prepared by Jim Dedman and Nick Farr.]