Stella Liebeck vs. McDonalds


StellaLiebeck vs. McDonalds

StellaLiebeck vs. McDonalds (Facts about the case)

StellaLiebeck, a 79-year old woman by then, purchased a take-out coffeefrom McDonalds at the Albuquerque, New Mexico. Due to the hard lidthat proved hard to open, Liebeck’s forcefully opened it. As aresult, she poured the hot coffee on her lap. She sufferedthird-degree burns. She used for damages and the court subsequentlyawarded her $2.6 million in damages. Mrs. Liebeck had boarded a carthat stopped by the Albuquerque McDonald’s outlet. The coffeespilled over her as she forcefully opened the hard-lidded coffee toadd sugar and cream. She had to undergo skin grafts on her thighs andother body parts that sustained serious burns followed by a two yeartreatment period. It was revealed during court proceeding thatMcDonalds had received other complaints about injuries caused by thesuper-hot coffee cups arising from spills during opening process,including third-degree burns similar to Mrs. Liebeck. McDonalds hadpaid for settlement of the complaints out of the court. Meanwhile,Mrs. Liebeck wanted an out of the court settlement of $20,000 ascompensation for her lost income and to use part of it to cover formedical expenses. McDonalds responded with a counter-offer of $800.The case proceeded to the trial stage. The Jury found Mrs. Liebeckpartially culpable for the injuries she sustained and reduced theinitial compensation amount McDonalds was to pay her. However, thejury awarded Mrs. Liebeck an amount that was meant to punishMcDonalds for its reluctance to respond to complaints by changingtheir policy. It was equivalent to a two-day revenue streams from thecoffee sales at the Albuquerque outlet. The Jury later reduced thepunitive award by more than 80% as a way to avoid further appealsfrom McDonalds. Mrs. Liebeck and McDonalds agreed on a confidentialsettlement.

Questions:Whois responsible for Mrs. Liebeck’s Injuries? If it is Mrs. Liebeck,to what extent is she culpable for the injuries she suffered due tothe third-degree burns caused by the coffee spill?

StellaLiebeck vs. McDonalds

TheCourt’s finding that McDonald had a primary responsible for thesafety of its customers was plausible and agreeable. The fact therehad been more complaints from its customers, means that McDonaldsdeliberately refused to institute changes that would have preventedthe occurrence of the Mrs. Liebeck’s injury. However, Mrs. Liebeckshould have been held more responsible for her negligence.Afterstudying the case, one could say that McDonald was liable for theincident. One argument that was put forth by the plaintiff to justifythis was that the fast food outlet served exceedingly hot coffee. Inthe amended complaint given by the plaintiff, it portrayed the coffeepurchased from McDonalds as being unreasonably hazardous due to itshigh temperatures. The underlying concern was whether coffee servedat such high temperature of between 180 and 190 degree wasunreasonably a faulty and unsafe product that could cause harm.

Accordingto ‘The Wall Street Journal’, internal manuals from McDonaldsthat were generated during the legal action showed that the coffeewas prepared at temperatures between 195 and 205 degree after whichit was held at slightly lower temperatures to guarantee optimaltaste. Moreover, McDonalds’ corporate policy indicated that thebeverage must be kept at 180to 190 degrees. The court also proved so by examining McDonalds’manual. Certainly, that was about 30 to 40 degrees higher comparedto what is served by other outlets in the neighborhood where thehappening occurred.In fact, science has evidenced that beverages held at such hightemperature have a likelihood of causing third-degree burns almostimmediately once it comes into contact with the skin. Such burnsnecessitate broad procedures in order to get rid of dead cells whilegrafting novel ones, considering that they do not cure on their own.Furthermore, even after treatment, they can lead to permanentdisfiguration besides causing temporary disability.

Duringthe case proceedings, burn specialists who originated from the‘Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation’ as well as biomedicalengineering specialists who were called from the University of Texassaid that the risk of injury that was posed by McDonalds’ wasintolerable. On the same note, the restaurant’s quality assurancemanager confirmed that the coffee served was unfit for humanconsumption because of its excessive temperature. The manager saidthat the beverage could result in severe injuries both in the mouthas well as the throat.

Anotherargument that shows McDonalds was at fault is that during thelawsuit, the restaurant owned up that it was aware of the hazardsassociated with their coffee for more than a decade. It had receivedapproximately 700 additional cases between the period 1982 and 1992.The cases involved customers who were burned by the restaurant coffeeat different degrees and additionally, had paid $500,000 in claims.The containers used to serve the beverage had design defects and itlacked warnings, and this made the coffee to be defectively marketed. This meant that consumers were not able to determine the risk posedby the beverage, while the restaurant never took any actions to warnthem.

Factsin the case show that McDonald was culpable. It sold super-hot coffeeyet it was aware of the dangers posed by such high temperatures andnever put any warnings and it was negligence not to inspect theproduct before selling it to the end users.

Liebeckshould have been held liable for her injuries through causalnegligence. The questions are why Mrs. Liebeck place coffee betweenher legs did in the first place? Wasn’t she aware that coffee isusually hot and place it there was extremely risky? Her actions uponpurchasing the coffee amount to contributory negligence leading toher injuries. On other hand, McDonald ignored the potential injurythat could be caused by in the event of a spill of the coffee. Shefailed the necessary precautions which could have prevented anypotential hazard. Besides, how the spill spread-out still remains amystery. The plaintiff was not driving, and actually, her grandsonwho was behind the wheel had pulled the car over to allow hergrandmother open the coffee, add sugar and cream.


Liebeckshould have been held more liable. Facts reveal culpability on bothMcDonald and Liebeck because they contributed to the latter’sinjuries in one way or another. She was awarded huge sum of moneyfor her injury, which one could argue that was caused by her ownnegligence. Nonetheless, she had a stronger case that McDonalds’defense due to the following reasons:

  • The direct cause Mrs. Liebeck’s injury was majorly at the fault of the defendant. Suppose the coffee was not dangerously hot and the cups were not faulty, the plaintiff’s injuries could not have been severe.

  • McDonalds could have avoided such injuries if they had responded to the complaints from customers before Mrs. Liebeck’s incident.

  • The court proved beyond the reasonable doubt that the coffee was dangerously hot and the lids were faulty. The coffee cups had design defects that increased the vulnerability of customers.