This paper will consider the facts associated with the case of Stella Liebeck versus McDonald’s, resulting from Ms. Liebeck’s efforts to collect for damages sustained when she spilled extremely hot coffee into her lap in 1992. The issues, applicable laws and the conclusion the jury reached will also be covered as well as the subsequent impacts on American tort law following this decision. The facts in the Liebeck case start with the incident description as recounted by Aric Press in the March 20, 1995 issue of Newsweek. Ms. Liebeck was a recently retired, 79 year old woman who ordered coffee at a McDonald’s drive through and received it in a lidded, styrofoam cup (Press, 1995, p. 32). After the order was picked up, her grandson pulled his car forward and stopped so that she could add cream and sugar to her coffee. After placing the cup between her knees since the car had no cup holders, she attempted to remove the plastic lid. The entire contents of the cup spilled into her lap, burning her severely. Subsequently, Ms. Liebeck suffered second and third degree burns on her groin, inner thighs and buttocks (Press, 1995, p.32). Ms. Liebeck spent several days in the hospital for her burns and another period of weeks at home recuperating. Subsequently, she was readmitted to the hospital for skin grafts. (Press, 1995, p. 3). It was confirmed that the coffee was stored at a temperature of approximately 180 to 190 degrees, per industry standards (Howard, 1994, p.1), which is likely to cause third degree burns with only a few seconds exposure. The temperature at which McDonald’s kept their coffee was reported to be approximately 40 degrees hotter than that made in a home brewed pot of coffee (Howard, 1994, p.1). McDonald’s had previously received reports of over seven hundred (700) burn incidents form scalding hot coffee and had not at all reacted to the situation (Press, 1995, p. 32). Prior to the incident in question, Ms. Liebeck had never before filed suit in her life (Coffin, 2004, p.4). During the trial, testimony from the expert for the defense did not help their case when he told jurors that the number of burn cases was trivial in comparison to the number of cups of coffee sold annually (Gerlin, 1994, p.2). In fact, he stated that, in perspective, the 700 complaints were “basically trivially different from zero” (Press, 1995, p.32). One of McDonald’s executives testified that, in spite of their awareness of the issue, they had not consulted any experts in the field, and in fact had decided not to warn about the possibility of burns. This was in spite of the fact that they were aware of the danger and that most people would not consider danger to be an issue (Gerlin, 1994, p.2). Ultimately, the case was settled for an undisclosed amount. Ms. Liebeck originally attempted to settle for as little as $2000, but McDonald’s only offered $800 (Press, 1995, p.2). A primary issue at hand is what obligation does the defendant, McDonald’s, have to alert its customers that it’s coffee is excessively hot and can cause severe burns? Also, what responsibility does the consumer have in ensuring they understand this and take appropriate cautionary measures to avoid causing injury to themselves? What are the penalties associated with McDonald’s failure to protect its clientele? This case deals with product liability law. According to Kubasek, Brennan, and Browne, "when consumers…purchase a product, they assume that the product will do the job the manufacturer claims it will do without injuring the consumer or anyone else" (in Hartigan, ed., 2004, p. 169). In this case, coffee purchased is presumed to be non-injurious by a reasonable person. Specifically, it is expected that coffee is hot, but is not presumed that it will cause injury to the degree that occurred in the Liebeck case. The plaintiff complained of negligence on the part of the defendant based on their failure to warn or negligence in...
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