by Rabbi Yonason Goldson
If your memory stretches back to February 1992, you may recall the case of Stella Liebeck. The 79-year-old resident of Albuquerque, New Mexico, spilled her coffee in her lap while holding it between her legs in the car, then turned around and sued the McDonald’s restaurant that served her for $4 million.
The public was outraged – all the more so when the jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $2.86 million in damages. I remember thinking to myself: here we go again; irresponsible individuals blaming others for their own mistakes, frivolous lawsuits, and runaway juries. When will the madness end?
Eventually, the full story began to emerge. McDonald’s served its coffee at over 180 degrees Fahrenheit, some 30 degrees hotter than most restaurants. In the previous decade, McDonald’s had received countless complaints that its coffee was too hot. Some 700 lawsuits targeted the corporation, many of which were settled for a combined half-million dollars.
Ms. Liebeck suffered burns over 16% of her body, nearly half of them third degree burns. She underwent skin grafts and required a stay of eight days in the hospital, and another three weeks under her daughter’s care before she was able to function on her own.
Initially, she did not file suit against McDonald’s, but merely asked the company to reimburse her $18,000 for medical expenses and her daughter’s lost wages. The company responded by offering her $800.
The jury assessed Ms. Liebeck’s medical expenses, pain, and suffering at $200,000. Then, finding McDonald’s 80% responsible, it awarded damages of $160,000, plus another $2.7 million in punitive damages – roughly equal to the restaurant’s coffee revenue over two days.
McDonald’s argued that it serves its coffee at high temperature so it will stay hot longer for commuters on their way to work. This may at first appear to be a reasonable accommodation in the interest of customer service. However, drinking hot coffee while driving is itself an act of questionable wisdom. And while the restaurant is not responsible for the poor choices of its customers, increasing the risk of serious injury for a benefit of minimal value is not a strategy found in the pages of any ethical playbook.
We all do foolish things, betting the small odds of catastrophe against the expectation of immediate convenience. Ms. Liebeck lost that bet when she spilled coffee in her lap. McDonald’s lost that bet by selling superheated coffee. The jury acknowledged the complicity of both parties, but held McDonald’s to a higher level of responsibility for creating conditions in which a minor accident produced a critical injury.
To a larger degree, the jury held McDonald’s culpable for its response. Many corporations recognize that occasional accidents for which they are not completely responsible may result in disproportionate damage to their clients and customers. While refusing to acknowledge responsibility, they often agree to cover medical expenses and recovery, both as a gesture of good will and also as a matter of good business.
McDonald’s offer of $800 was not merely unjust; it was insulting, and the company knew it. Perhaps the decision-makers at McDonald’s assumed that a 79-year-old woman was not going to cause them much trouble and could be bought off cheaply. The jurors apparently concluded that civic responsibility translated into actual liability. Their legal verdict was built on a solid ethical foundation.
Rabbi Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to limit liability while earning loyalty and trust. He’s host of the weekly podcast Grappling with the Gray and author of “Grappling with the Gray: An Ethical Handbook for Personal Happiness and Business Prosperity,” from which this article is taken. Visit him at ethicalimperatives.com.