Don’t cry over spilled coffee

Spill coffee on yourself and make a million dollars.  That’s what most folks believe happened in one of the most infamous product liability cases of all time – “the McDonald’s coffee case.”  Everyone knows coffee is hot, right?  So how can it be that McDonald’s was sued again in March of this year – not once but twice – for burning people with hot coffee?

Make mine a double-decafinated half-caf, skinny, venti, no whip with a shot of decaf.

The answer:  McDonalds continues to serve its coffee at dangerously hot temperatures.  As recounted is a recent documentary on the original case, the real facts (not those reported in the media or regurgitated on talk radio) are as follows:

- The injured person was 79 year old Stella Leibeck.

- She had never filed a lawsuit before in her life

- She was the passenger, not the driver.

-  They were parked, not driving.

- McDonalds served its coffee 20 degrees hotter than everyone else.

- McDonalds had burned over 700 people before, but refused to lower the temperature.

- Ms. Leibeck suffered third degree skin burns in her crotch, which required skin grafts.

- When she asked McDonalds to pay her medical bills of $20,000, they offered her $800.

- The jury awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages.  That’s the amount of profit McDonalds makes selling just coffee every two days.

- On appeal, the jury’s award was reduced, and the parties settled for a confidential amount that we will never know.

What does this mean to you:

There is often more to so-called “frivolous cases” than is first reported.  Cases like this, not only make up to the injured person for what they have lost, but discourages dangerous conduct in the future.

Does everyone know that coffee is hot?  Sure.  Does everyone know coffee is burn-your-skin-off-in-three-seconds hot?  Maybe not.

Can we at least send them to their room with no dessert?

Every parent knows that, from time to time, a little punishment can be warranted.  We generally punish for the really bad stuff, and even then, the punishment has to “fit the crime.”  In really bad cases, juries can punish bad behavior too by awarding punitive damages. Punitive damages are hard to actually prove, and as a result, are rarely awarded.

The type of behavior punitive damages discourage is the worst of the worst – intentional, dangerous behavior.  The classic example is the infamous Ford Pinto, often recognized as one of the worst cars of all time.  Ford engineers knew its gas tank design was likely catch fire in a crash and knew how to fix it for only $11 per car, but decided it would be cheaper to let people burn and pay the lawsuits.

Why, then, did the Ohio Supreme Court recently make it even harder to punish wrongdoers when they deserve it?  And why are lawmakers in Arizona seeking to exempt manufacturers of dangerous products from being punished when their conduct warrants it?  How will this create jobs or make products safer?  Hint: It’s not a trick question.

What does this mean to you?

Know your legislators and judges.  Let them know that everyone, including corporations, should be accountable for their actions.