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Kevin W. Yeam: Know the facts of the McDonald’s coffee case

It's The Law

Posted: May 21, 2009 8:44 p.m.
Updated: May 22, 2009 4:55 a.m.
The McDonald’s “scalding coffee case” has entered the public consciousness as an example of out-of-control litigation.

We were told that someone ordered coffee at the drive-thru, spilled it on their lap while driving, hired an attorney and won an outlandish award.  Thus, the question became why would a New Mexico jury, a conservative jurisdiction, grant — and an experienced trial judge uphold — a verdict that seemed patently erroneous?  

Rather than falling victim to the sound-bite mentality of justice, here is the whole story. It shows many important points that were not reported.

First, the coffee was not hot,  it was scalding.  The McDonald’s coffee policy mandated service at 180 to 190 degrees, which is capable of almost instantaneous destruction of human flesh and muscle.  The 79-year-old female injured sustained third-degree burns over 6 percent of her body, including the inner thigh, perineum, buttocks, genitals and groin.  She was hospitalized for eight days while undergoing painful skin grafting surgery and debridement.

McDonald’s admitted it had a highly enforced policy of holding its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees and never considered any safety ramifications for that temperature.

McDonald’s further admitted that it knew any food or drink is a burn hazard above 140 degrees, knew its coffee was not fit for human consumption when poured (would burn mouth and throat) and admitted that other establishments served their coffee at 135 to 140 degrees.  McDonald’s also conceded that the consumers were unaware that they were exposed to third-degree-burn potential from the coffee.

Second, the stories that were reported inferred that the plaintiff was driving the car when the incident occurred — untrue. The plaintiff was a passenger who had purchased the coffee at a drive-up window, and the car was stopped when the burn occurred.  McDonald’s further admitted knowing that its coffee was consumed in automobiles.  

McDonald’s was also aware of 700 third-degree-burn injuries caused by coffee from 1982 to 1992, but stated it had no intention of reducing the temperature, even though it knew the nature and extent of injuries it was causing.

Third, the plaintiff offered to settle for $20,000 before trial, and McDonald’s refused.

Fourth, at trial, a thermodynamic expert testified that the 180-degree coffee would cause third-degree burns within two to seven seconds of exposure to clothing holding the liquid against skin.  Additionally, as the temperature decreases toward 155 degrees, the rate and seriousness of burning decreases exponentially.  

At 155 degrees, the plaintiff would not have been seriously injured.

Fifth, the jury awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages, which was reduced to $160,000 to reflect the 20 percent of fault attributed to the plaintiff’s action.  

The $2.7 million in punitive damages were awarded to reflect two days of coffee sales for McDonalds. The trial judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, but called McDonald’s conduct reckless, callous and willful. The case was settled after the verdict without an appeal.

Sixth, after the verdict, McDonald’s lowered the temperature of its coffee to reflect the safe industry standard without of any consumer complaints about the coffee’s lower temperature adversely affecting its taste.

There usually are three sides to every story: the plaintiff’s, the defendant’s and the truth. This latter element usually lies somewhere in between the first two.  

It is important to remember that no matter how sharp a consumer attorney may be, he/she must still overcome equally competent and more heavily funded defense counsel, a major corporation’s financial muscle in opposition, a generally conservative judge and carry the burden of proof to convince 12 honorable and unbiased US citizen jurors before they earn any a single penny.

Kevin Yeam is a civil litigation attorney in Santa Clarita.  He can be reached at (661) 255-9500.  His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.  “It’s The Law” appears Fridays and rotates between members of the Santa Clarita Valley Bar Association.  Nothing contained herein shall be or is intended to be construed as providing legal advice.


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