I have yet to pick a jury where I didn’t hear the phrase “McDonald’s coffee” at some point in the voir dire process. The case has become the poster child for the Tort Reform movement and virtually everyone in the country (and perhaps the world) has heard about it at some point in their life. But, was the verdict truly the most ridiculous verdict in the nation’s history? Were those twelve jurors really that stupid? Before you answer, consider the following facts about Liebeck v. McDonald’s that many people do not know:
1. Stella Liebeck, the “coffee lady,” placed the Styrofoam cup between her legs as her grandson stopped the car so that she could add cream and sugar to her coffee (have you noticed how McDonald’s does this for you now?). Many people believe she spilled the coffee as she was driving herself and while the car was in motion.
2. The coffee served by McDonald’s was so hot it caused instant third degree burns to over six percent of her body. This six percent included her inner thighs, her buttocks, her genitals, and her groin. She was hospitalized for eight days as a result of her injuries.
3. Liebeck offered to settle her case with McDonald’s for $20,000.00 well before the jury returned with the now infamous $2.86 million verdict.
4. More than 700 people had been burned by McDonald’s coffee in a ten year period prior to Liebeck’s incident. Some of these people suffered substantially similar burns as Liebeck.
5. Coffee brewed at home is typically served between 135 and 140 degrees. McDonald’s coffee was served between 180 and 190 degrees. A burn hazard exists whenever a food substance is served over 140 degrees.
6. McDonald’s knew about the burn hazard, but the company’s quality assurance manager testified the company had no intention of reducing the temperature of its coffee.
7. McDonald’s argued that it kept its coffee so hot because the customers would consume it at home and work and wanted it to still be hot when they arrived there. However, the company’s own research showed that most customers would begin to consume the coffee immediately.
8. The verdict handed down by the jury was originally $200,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. The $200,000 was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Liebeck twenty percent at fault in the spill (of note, in North Carolina which has the doctrine of contributory negligence, this finding of fault on the part of Liebeck would have resulted in no recovery for Liebeck at all). McDonald’s made $2.7 million in coffee sales alone over a two day period at the time.
9. The trial judge reduced the $2.7 million award to $480,000, three times the compensatory award of $160,000. North Carolina has a similar law.
10. The jury that handed down the $2.86 million verdict was selected by both the Plaintiff, Stella Liebeck, and the Defendant, McDonald’s.
I’m not going to defend the coffee verdict and if you disagree with that jury that’s your right. All I’m saying is that you can probably find more “ridiculous” verdicts in American jurisprudence when you look at all the facts. It is easy for us (this trial lawyer included) to look at a jury verdict and wonder what those twelve allegedly reasonable people could have been thinking. But, the cornerstone of our judicial system is the jury. If we lose faith in our juries, then the system cannot work.