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The McDonald’s “hot coffee” case is often pointed at as the poster child for frivolous lawsuits, at least by tort reformers. Unfortunately, many people don’t know the actual details of that case, or the severe injuries that Stella Liebeck suffered as the result of the cup of McDonald’s coffee that spilled in her lap—coffee that wasn’t just hot, but was actually scalding. It is important to note the actual facts of the case– much of which was left out of most stories you will find on the Internet or elsewhere—before writing Stella’s case off as a “frivolous lawsuit”.

Stella was a 79-year-old grandmother at the time of the incident, and she was riding in her grandson’s car. Her grandson had pulled over to the side of the road to allow Stella to add cream and sugar to her coffee. The car was not moving, as many tort-reform hawks would like the public to believe. When Stella pulled the lid off of the coffee cup, the exceedingly hot coffee spilled onto her lap and onto the seat beneath her. She was wearing cotton jogging pants. McDonald’s admitted that the coffee was served at a scalding 190 degrees—hot enough to cause third degree burns within 2-7 seconds (according to expert testimony). She did, in fact, suffer serious burns to her thighs, buttocks, and genitals. She was taken to the hospital, where doctors determined that she had suffered third-degree burns. She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent painful skin grafting. Thereafter, she underwent two years of treatment. Although McDonald’s admitted that they knew the cup of coffee was exceedingly hot, they tried to cover up for their reckless conduct by claiming that they purposefully served the coffee at a high temperature because company research showed that customers want to drive a distance before drinking the coffee. However, their own research also indicated that some customers intended to drink the coffee immediately after purchase. So what was it? Well, the truth is that McDonald’s had known for over a decade that their coffee was burning people (over 700 claims, some including third degree burns) and yet did nothing about it.

Now, McDonald’s is facing another similar suit. Except the dangerously hot food isn’t coffee, it’s a grease-filled fried chicken sandwich. Specifically, when Frank Sutton took a bite into the sandwich, scalding grease “flew all over his mouth” according to another diner who witnessed the incident. To ease the burn, Sutton’s wife attempted to apply ice from her drink to his lips, but they blistered anyway and Mr. Sutton proceeded to the counter to complain to an employee. The employee’s response was “this is what happens [to the sandwiches] when they aren’t drained completely”. The next morning, Mr. Sutton discovered that his lips had bled on his pillow and seven months later his lips still hadn’t healed. He was even forced to avoid particular work assignments that would worsen his condition, since his job required a lot of time outdoors. As a result, Mr. Sutton sued McDonald’s and the local franchisee for his medical bills, pain and suffering and lost wages. However, a federal district court originally dismissed his case, ruling that he failed to prove what standard of care McDonald’s was required to meet in handling its food. Despite that ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the decision and reinstated the suit, arguing that if the account of the incident is true, then it could constitute a violation of Virginia’s food safety laws. It will be up to a jury now to decide. While we don’t know the final outcome of the case, we can surely expect that critics of so-called “frivolous lawsuits” will be quick to jump all over Mr. Sutton the same way they did to Stella Liebeck.

14 Comments

  1. Gravatar for Gerry McGill

    I have always heard, although it may just be an urban legend, that the reason that McDonalds served scalding hot coffee is that some locations gave free refills for coffee drunk on premises. So if the coffee took a long time to cool, fewer persons would ask for a refill.

  2. Interesting, I understood it was so that it would be hot for a very long time as people drive off with it. What's interesting about the new case is all the focus on the number being used. I really don't like jurisdictions that do that. Minnesota doesn't require anything other than the Federal issues be covered.

  3. Gravatar for David Beeman

    What is missing from the article is the fact that all commercial coffee is brewed at a temperature between 190F and 205F. It must be brewed at that temperature to extract coffee flavor. A lower temp and the coffee tastes terrible. The preferred temp is usually within a degree of 203F. All commercial brewer manufacturers, that I know, understand the importance of flavor extraction and build their equipment accordingly. The last innovation in brewing technology was temp. stabilization where the coffee is brewed within 1/3 of a degree variation as it has been proven that flavor profiles differ dramatically if temp varies.

    I believe it is time Americans started taking responsibility for their actions. The last time I tried to import a European appliance into the US for commercial sales I was told by the manufacturer he was not interested due to the high cost of insurance and the fear of frivolous lawsuits. Frivolous lawsuits hurt everyone and benefit few if any except for the lawyers. Frivolous lawsuits drive up manufacturing costs and from a personal perspective have driven insurance costs through the roof for everyone. We all pay dearly for the errors of a few that refuse to take personal responsibility for doing stupid things. The hot coffee mistake should have never been brought to court. Tragic as it was for the individual she should have simply been more careful.

  4. Gravatar for Marie

    I agree with the information about the temperature requirements of coffee, especially at specialty coffee shops. Our shops fill the cups a bit short so that there is some "spillage" room. But there is an element of personal responsibility. If coffee is served at a lower temperature, you will get complaints that it's not hot enough. If you serve it at optimal temperature, someone will get burned. All the lids I've seen have a warning "Caution: Hot". It's not iced coffee,people.

  5. Gravatar for Steve Lombardi

    Frank you seem to know a lot about frivolous lawsuits. In fact you may be the most expert person I've ever met on the subject of frivolous lawsuits. Do me a small favor and name 10 frivouls lawsuits in the entire history of this country.

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    Thanks.

  6. Gravatar for Steve Lombardi

    Now name " All commercial brewer manufacturers, that I know...".

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    Thanks.

  7. Gravatar for Steve Lombardi

    Next please identify the European appliance manufacturer by name, the representative of that company you spoke with, date you tried to import a European coffee maker, the make and model of that coffee maker, the amount of any insurance he had been quoted and the insurance company providing the insurance quote.

    HERE IS WHAT YOU STATED: "The last time I tried to import a European appliance into the US for commercial sales I was told by the manufacturer he was not interested due to the high cost of insurance and the fear of frivolous lawsuits."

  8. Gravatar for Steve Lombardi

    Another question just came to me. You said, " Frivolous lawsuits hurt everyone and benefit few if any except for the lawyers." If frivolous lawsuits are worthless how does 1/3 of zero make a lawyer rich? Please explain and I'd like the names of all those rich lawyers who filed frivolous lawsuits and made money. Because last I checked zero divided by any number is still zero. Did I missing something in the frivolous lawsuit math class?

  9. Gravatar for Steve Lombardi

    Darn questions keep coming to me and while I have an frivolous lawsuit expert available I'm going to ask every one of these darn frivolous lawsuit questions. YOU SAID: "Frivolous lawsuits drive up manufacturing costs and from a personal perspective have driven insurance costs through the roof for everyone. We all pay dearly for the errors of a few that refuse to take personal responsibility for doing stupid things. The hot coffee mistake should have never been brought to court."

    Dumb Question 1: Where did you get your financial information upon which to base this claim that frivolous lawsuits have driven up insurance costs and the costs of manufactured goods? SOURCE: _______________________________________________

    Dumb Question 2: Exactly how much has a cup of coffee at McDonald's increased since the Stella Liebeck award was announced? $__________.

    Dumb Question 3: How much has the price of a toothbrush manufactured in China increased due to the Liebeck award: $________________________.

    Dumb Question 4: Who funds the ATRA and the American Chamber of Communists and why won't they tell us? Answer:

    Dumb Question 5: Why does the U.S. Chamber not criticize Chinese manufacturing of babies milk laced with melamine but spends millions on the Liebeck award? Answer:

    I'm hungry so I'm going to go eat supper. I'll be back later to check on your progress with answering these dumb questions. Thanks.

  10. Gravatar for Steve Lombardi

    Mr. Beeman, if you wouldn’t mind doing me one last favor. I like that you’re advocating for people to take responsibility for the mistakes others make. It seems saintly and if there is something we need more of in this world it’s saints. I’d love to hear what you have to say about Bernie Madoff. Refreshing since the Chamber hasn’t said a word about the multiple Ponzi schemers out there stealing our money on Wall Street. But we can talk about that some other time. Right now I just need you to sign my tort-reform form agreeing to exclude yourself from using the civil justice system. Can we count on you? Here is the form. If it doesn’t attach just go to the Iowa-Des Moines blog and look up this title and you can print the form.

    Icing on the Cake - Health Care Reform with a Tort Reform Fondant

    Steve Lombardi | March 04, 2010 9:50 AMDes Moines, IA

    Right after it’s received by me I’ll contact the Pope and ask for you to be nominated for sainthood. But before we get to the altar to kneel for sainthood, there is that pesky form for you to sign. Thanks.

    TORT REFORM COMPENSATION WAIVER FORM

    Putting my money where my mouth goes.

    I, ___________________________, hereby declare my intention to opt-out of the U.S. civil justice system by waiving my right to ever seek compensation in the various courts of the United States for medical errors. I will self insure myself and my family for wage loss, medical costs, prescription charges, reduced earning capacity that causes future wage losses, future medical care and quality of life damages.

    I, ___________________________, am willing to set aside $____________ per year to cover the costs of protecting myself and family from the catastrophic effects of a medical error.

    I realize by signing this form I WILL NOT seek compensation, though I may be injured or killed through medical errors. Those medical errors may include but are not limited to the following events: anesthesia, surgical, prescription medications, infections, wrong-site, wrong-patient, wrong-procedure or other preventable causes.

    I declare my understanding that some medical errors can cause life threatening injuries that render me or a family member brain dead, although technically still alive. I will insure against the possibility that my family may never have the same lifestyle, including that my children may never be able to afford a college education.

    I, ___________________________, agree to privately insure against this possibility and hereby declare my intention to self insure.

    I, ___________________________, understand that all economic losses my family may suffer can not be predicted. I will self insure for all of these unknown losses including any not listed here.

    I,____________________________, further declare that I will never hire a lawyer to protect the interests of myself or my family and agree that should I ever hire a lawyer I will pay them by the hour at the then going rate for similar legal services.

    VERIFICATION - WIFE

    STATE OF____________:

    ss

    _____________ COUNTY:

    I, , being duly sworn on oath, depose and state that I am the tort reformer that advocates for limiting other people’s rights; that I have read the foregoing exclusion from the civil justice system and know and understand its contents, and that its statements are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief. By signing this form I opt out of the United States civil justice system and will never receive compensation for the mistakes of others.

    _________________________________

    Tort Reformer - Wife

    Subscribed and sworn to before me on this day of _______________, 2010.

    ________________________________

    Notary Public in and for the State of Iowa

    VERIFICATION - HUSBAND

    STATE OF____________:

    ss

    _____________ COUNTY:

    I, , being duly sworn on oath, depose and state that I am the tort reformer that advocates for limiting other people’s rights; that I have read the foregoing exclusion from the civil justice system and know and understand its contents, and that its statements are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief. By signing this form I opt out of the United States civil justice system and will never receive compensation for the mistakes of others.

    _________________________________

    Tort Reformer - Husband

    Subscribed and sworn to before me on this day of _______________, 2010.

    ________________________________

    Notary Public in and for the State of Iowa

    Please sign before a notary and mail your form to Steve Lombardi.

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