The poster child case for tort reform is the McDonald’s restaurant hot coffee case in which a jury in New Mexico awarded 2.7 million dollars in punitive damages against McDonald’s for serving very hot coffee to an elderly woman. Many viewed the case as a prime example of a jury system and a tort law system that were out of control.
The facts present a different story. 79 year old Stella Liebeck drove through a McDonald’s drive thru lane in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She ordered coffee. When she stopped to add sugar and cream to the coffee, it spilled on her. She suffered several third degree burns, had skin graft surgeries and stayed in the hospital for more than a week.
She asked McDonald’s to pay for her hospital bills of about $11,000. McDonald’s refused to pay. She then contacted a Houston attorney Morgan Reed, who made a request for $80,000 for medical expenses and pain and suffering. McDonald’s offered $800.
Liebeck then sued. The case proceeded to a jury which heard evidence that McDonald’s had more than 700 complaints of burns from its hot coffee, which reached temperatures of up to 190 degrees. McDonald’s, however, ignored these complaints and refused to lower the temperature of its coffee.
A jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. The jury also found Liebeck 20 percent at fault so that reduced her compensatory damage award down to $160,000. The jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million dollars in punitive damages, but the trial judge reduced that award down to $480,000.
The parties later settled the case for an undisclosed amount. After the case, McDonald’s has a prominent sign at its stores warning customers that its coffee and hot tea are VERY HOT!
- Why are punitive damage awards considered controversial?
- What types of damages are most common in tort cases?
- What is the duty to mitigate damages?
- Which states still do have contributory negligence?
- Why is comparative fault considered fairer than contributory negligence?
- Who determines the percentages of fault of the parties?
- What are the different forms of comparative negligence?
- What happens if both parties (plaintiff and defendant) are negligent?
- If you fall on a slippery floor in a store, can you sue for negligence?
- Where does the term good Samaritan come from?
- Can a Good Samaritan be held liable if he or she acts negligently even though they are trying to help?
- What if some unexpected event causes damage to a plaintiff after a defendant’s negligent act?
- Can an employer be held negligent if it retains or hires an employee who is dangerous to the public?
- Can a business be liable for injuries caused to its patrons by third parties?
- What was the case of Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Company concerning proximate causation?
- What are the two types of causation in tort cases?
- What is res ipsa loquitur?
- What is negligence perse?
- Are children held to the same standard of care as adults?
- What is a reasonable person ?