Punitive Damages vs. Frivolous Lawsuits: The Infamous McDonald's Scalding Coffee Case


November 25, 2010

Insurance companies, business organizations and politicians championing tort reform often use the term “frivolous lawsuit” with the infamous McDonald’s coffee case as the example that is supposed to epitomize a frivolous personal injury lawsuit. The actual facts of the McDonald’s case make it far from frivolous and paint a clearer picture of the basis for the punitive damage award. Personal injury litigation is an important supplement to the criminal law for discouraging unsafe behavior that places innocent victims at risk of serious injury or death.

The version of the McDonald’s hot coffee case that most are familiar with is the version that was promoted by insurance companies and other large companies that had much to gain from tort reform (limiting the rights of victims to recover compensation for their injuries). At Montlick and Associates, Attorneys at Law, we represent those seriously injured or killed by careless or intentional conduct that creates an unreasonable risk of harm to injury victims.

The McDonald’s case was not simply a situation were someone got a minor burn and was awarded a large verdict. The burn victim suffered full thickness burns (third degree burns) over 6% of her body. She had to remain in the hospital for a six-day stay and received numerous skin grafts. According to articles citing the actual court transcripts, the coffee that caused the burns was maintained at a temperature of 180-190 degrees, even though McDonald’s admitted they were aware that keeping the coffee at that temperature created safety risks. McDonald’s also admitted they knew that the coffee was not safe to drink and would cause a serious burn very quickly at that temperature. An expert that testified in the case indicated that at 180 degrees the coffee would cause a full thickness burn in 2-3 seconds giving the spill victim virtually no opportunity to avoid a serious burn. The coffee was far hotter than other restaurants or coffee brewed at home, which is more typically in the 135-140 degree range and would have given the victim time to avoid a serious burn.

McDonald’s was aware that the coffee was unsafe and had knowledge of over 700 other victims who had been burned by their coffee, but insisted on keeping the coffee so scalding hot that a victim was almost guaranteed to receive full thickness burns in the event of a spill. The victim was awarded $160,000 in compensatory damages to compensate for her medical expenses and pain and suffering. The jury initially awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages, which would have amounted to about two days of McDonald’s proceeds from coffee sales. The goal of punitive damages is to make companies change unsafe behavior. Evidence showed that McDonald’s was aware that their product would almost certainly result in such severe burns that hospitalization and skin grafts would be necessary, but refused to reduce the temperature of their coffee. Any smaller amount of punitive damages might have done nothing more than encourage McDonald’s to treat the cost of such personal injury lawsuits as the cost of doing business. The amount of the punitive damages was later reduced to $480,000, which is so small it did not create much incentive for McDonald’s to reduce the temperature of their coffee- which they believed tasted better at the higher temperature.

Large punitive damage awards in personal injury lawsuits target conduct that is particularly egregious and offensive. An important basis for determining the amount of punitive damage awards is to assess a serious enough penalty that defendants actually change their behavior. Punitive damages are only awarded in cases of exceptionally bad and reckless behavior. McDonald’s KNEW that people were suffering burns that were sending victims to hospitals for skin grafts and made a conscious decision to disregard that risk. While $240,000 is certainly a lot of money to the average consumer, it amounted to about 8 hours of coffee revenue for McDonald’s. What people should ask about the McDonald’s coffee case is not whether the award was too large but whether the reduced amount was enough to have any impact on McDonald’s future behavior.

At Montlick and Associates, Attorneys at Law, we talk to people every day that are injured or killed by dangerous behavior or defective products. Many are cases just like the McDonald’s coffee case, where the defendant knows or should have known that injury was likely but disregarded an obvious risk. Personal injury litigation forces individuals and companies to consider the consequences of their actions and make us all safer. At Montlick and Associates, Attorneys at Law, we have been representing those injured by dangerous behavior and defective products for over 25 years throughout Georgia. Our Georgia burn injury lawyers are available to assist clients throughout all of Georgia, including but not limited to Albany, Athens, Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, Dalton, Gainesville, Macon, Marietta, Rome, Roswell, Savannah, Smyrna, Valdosta, Warner Robins and all smaller cities and rural areas in the state. Call us today for your free consultation at 1-800-LAW-NEED (1-800-529-6333), or visit us on the web at www.montlick.com. No matter where you are in Georgia, we are just a phone call away, and we will even come to you.

Category: Personal Injury

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