You have probably heard people discussing the McDonald’s “Hot Coffee Case.” You have heard that case touted as one of the most extreme cases of frivolous tort litigation. And for those who don’t know the facts, it’s easy to feel that way. Even some of our own clients, those coming to our office to seek redress for own injuries, know it as a frivolous lawsuit, with an unwarranted and excessive verdict.
But what many people are unaware of is that the “Hot Coffee Case” involved a type of damages called punitive damages and they further fail to understand why and when those types of damages are warranted.
When someone is injured by someone else’s negligence, they have a right to bring their claim to the Courthouse and to allow a jury of their peers decide how much (or how little) they were damaged. Juries can award economic damages, for things like medical bill and lost wages. They can also award noneconomic damages, which aim to compensate an injured party for their pain and suffering and any inconvenience that their injuries may have occasioned them. In rare circumstances, a jury may also consider whether a person should be entitled to punitive damages.
Punitive damages are warranted in cases of extreme recklessness. The “Hot Coffee Case” is the perfect example of how punitive damages can come into play. Indeed, many people roll their eyes when they hear about the McDonald’s hot coffee case. They find it just ludicrous that an elderly woman, Stella Liebeck, burned her skin while taking the lid off of a cup of coffee while seated in a car (who does that anyways?!?). And that she received a multi-million-dollar verdict for her injuries. They failed to hear the fact that Ms. Liebeck sustained third-degree burns over 16% of her body as a result of the incident, that she required numerous skin grafting procedures, or that she required significant medical treatment for over two years.
In the investigatory phase of Ms. Liebeck’s case, it came to light that McDonald’s consciously chose to sell their coffee DANGEROUSLY hot. Not just a little hot, but scald your skin off in a matter of seconds hot. Their coffee was knowingly and intentionally served at 190 degrees Fahrenheit; a temperature which the corporation knew would cause serious third-degree burns to a person’s skin in a matter of seconds. Further, it was learned that McDonald’s main motive for serving their coffee this hot was so that it would take a person longer to drink a single cup and that, therefore, that person could not request numerous “free” refills. In other words, McDonald’s knowingly and consciously put its customers’ safety at risk so that they could make more money. Not only that, it was unveiled that McDonald’s, in an only 10-year period prior to Ms. Liebeck’s incident, was aware of more than 700 other people who were burned by their coffee in the exact same way! But still did NOTHING to make their product safer for their customers! Their own quality control expert testified that no one could ever drink the coffee they sold at the temperature it was sold at because it would cause severe burns to a person’s throat. The jury in Ms. Liebeck’s case understandably found McDonald’s conduct reckless and in conscious disregard for the safety of its customers – all for the goal of making more money.
The lesson here is that putting profits over a person’s safety is never okay. So, in sum, punitive damages exist to control corporate conduct and to protect consumers. To promote honesty and integrity by companies to their customers. And to make sure that a company’s profits never be treated as more reverent than human life.
Here at our firm, we have successfully argued many motions to have claims for punitive damages considered by the jury in rendering a verdict. At Legler, Murphy, & Battaglia, LLP, we are committed to helping our clients get the fair outcomes they deserve. We are personal injury and workers’ compensation lawyers that aggressively pursue what is right for our clients. We proudly serve the injured in Bradenton, Ellenton, Palmetto, Lakewood Ranch, Sarasota, and Venice. We have helped thousands of injured victims get the financial compensation they deserve.