By Kevin G. Cain*
The McDonald’s Coffee Lawsuit
Journal of Consumer & Commercial Law
omehow, somewhere along the way, the McDonald’s coﬀee lawsuit became the poster child for frivolous lawsuits. Who hasn’t taken a crack at this lawsuit for the sake of furthering their own cause? David Letterman and numerous other comedians have exploited this case as the punch-line to countless jokes.1 One of my favorite Seinfeld episodes involves Cosmo Kramer suing Java World after Kramer spills a cup of café latté on himself while trying to get a seat at a movie theater.2 Kramer suﬀers from minor burns that are easily remedied after a single application of a balm given to Kramer by the Maestro. Kramer asks his favorite attorney, Jackie Chiles, if the fact that he tried to sneak the coﬀee into the theater is going to be a problem in their lawsuit. Jackie responds, “Yeah, that’s going to be a problem. It’s gonna be a problem for them. This is a clear violation of your rights as a consumer. It’s an infringement on your constitutional rights. It’s outrageous, egregious, preposterous.”3 When Kramer asks if this lawsuit has a chance, Jackie responds, “Do we have a chance? You get me one coﬀee drinker on that jury, you gonna walk outta there a rich man.”4 Of course, Elaine is less than supportive when she ﬁnds out about Kramer’s latest lawsuit and quips, “What I mean is who ever heard of this anyway? Suing a company because their coﬀee is too hot? Coﬀee is supposed to be hot.”5 Obviously, Jerry and company are taking their own shots at the McDonald’s lawsuit in particular, and at frivolous lawsuits in general. It seems that nearly everyone has an opinion about frivolous lawsuits. This author recently removed a box containing class handouts sitting on the ﬂoor in the middle of an entryway into a Bible classroom and asked the person who put the box there if he minded my moving the box because someone could accidentally get hurt. The person responded (knowing that I was an attorney) by simply snorting as he walked away, “I think everyone who ﬁles a frivolous lawsuit should be shot.” “Objection, non-responsive,” I thought, but you get the point. All too often there does not appear to be much we can do to change people’s opinions on this subject. Or is there? “Just the facts ma’am; just the facts.” A line made famous by Dragnet’s Sergeant Joe Friday may be the answer. Unfortunately, people often refuse to let the facts alter their points of view. “I have my opinion, and I won’t let truth, reality, or the facts get in the way.”6 However, if people really knew the true facts about the McDonald’s lawsuit, few would have the same opinion (or misconception) that they carry around today. Let’s be honest. Most people, attorneys included, know little to nothing about the infamous McDonald’s lawsuit other than the last joke they heard about it. A woman spilled some McDonald’s coﬀee on herself, got burned, and got millions of dollars. That is about all most of us know about this woman and her legendary lawsuit. And yet many uninformed people have very strong opinions on this case. Well, as Paul Harvey says, “And now, the rest of the story.” Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants7 Seventy-nine-year-old Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was sitting in the passenger seat when her grandson drove his car through a McDonald’s drive-thru window in February 1992.8 Liebeck ordered coﬀee that was served in a McDonald’s styrofoam cup.9 After receiving the order, the grandson pulled his car forward and stopped for his grandmother to add sugar and cream to her coﬀee.10 Journal of Consumer & Commercial Law
(The rumors of Liebeck spilling her coﬀee while driving were inaccurate.11 The car was not moving, and she was not driving.) While parked, Ms. Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup.12 As she attempted to remove the lid, the contents of the cup spilled...