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Products Liability and the McDonald's Coffee Case

Those involved in the manufacturing business may well be familiar with the basics of products liability law. However, many individuals only know about this area of the law from what they hear in the media – usually involving incidents like the now infamous McDonald's coffee spill case.

In short, products liability laws say that an injured person is entitled to compensation for injuries resulting from a defective product. There are two requirements: (1) the product must be in an unreasonably dangerous condition when it leaves the manufacturer or the chain of distribution and (2) that dangerous condition must cause an injury. In most instances, liability is imposed without regard to fault. That means that a manufacturer can be liable no matter the care it exercised in the manufacture or design of the product.

What constitutes an unreasonably dangerous product? The basic rule is that a product which fails to perform in the manner reasonably expected in light of its intended function is unreasonably dangerous. Lawyers call this a defect. Defects can be of three types: (1) a manufacturing flaw – for example, a lawnmower shipped without installation of the screws that should have held down the blade, (2) a design flaw – for example, a car manufactured according to plan but which explodes upon ignition, or (3) inadequate instructions, warnings or directions – for example a chemical cleaner that doesn't warn you to avoid exposure to the skin.

A plaintiff may also establish his or her claim through breach of a warranty – either implied or expressed and related to merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose. These, too, are strict liability claims. In short, warranty claims seek to prove that the product fails to meet certain minimum standards.

Of course, a manufacturer has several defenses to such claims. If the consumer uses a product in an unintended way or in a way not reasonably foreseen by the manufacturer, there will be no liability. Likewise, anyone who uses a product knowing that it is defective is held to have "assumed the risk" and may well see his or her claim defeated. Or, the manufacturer can bring out evidence refuting the elements a plaintiff must prove as described above.

What does the McDonald's coffee case tell us about these general principles? Is it an indictment of current products liability law, or is it an example of how they are properly applied?

I'll leave that decision to you. But, before weighing in, it's best to know some of the facts. This case involved a woman going through a McDonald's drive through. After the attendant handed her a cup of coffee, it spilled and caused third degree burns on her legs, groin and genitals. She spent eight days in the hospital and had to undergo skin grafts.

The victim proceeded under a breach of warranty theory, claiming that she had the right to expect that the coffee she had purchased would be essentially similar in temperature to most every other cup of coffee sold in the country and that it could be consumed without injury. The jury agreed, and awarded the plaintiff $200,000 in compensatory damages (lost wages, medical bills and pain/suffering) together with $2,700,000 in punitive damages. The award was reduced twenty percent because the jury found that the plaintiff was partially responsible herself. In addition, the judge reduced the punitive damages award to $480,000.00. Interestingly, the plaintiff had offered to settle the lawsuit for $20,000, but McDonalds rejected the demand.

In making its decision, the jury considered the following evidence: that the coffee was 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit when served, and between 165-170 degrees when spilled; that the national burn center had publicly warned against serving beverages hotter than 135 degrees; that McDonalds was serving its coffee 40 degrees warmer than many other restaurants; and that McDonalds had received 700 other burn claims from its coffee before this injury and had taken no action to remedy the situation.

On the other hand, the jury heard evidence that the 700 other claims represented one claim for approximately every 24,000,000 cups of coffee sold by McDonalds. Moreover, the evidence showed that the plaintiff was a passenger in the car, that the car was not moving when the coffee spilled, that the plaintiff had held the coffee between her legs, and that it spilled as she attempted to take the lid off.

Applying these general principles of products liability law, ask yourself whether McDonalds served a defective product which it knew, or reasonably should have known, would cause injury when spilled. Or, was the fact that hot coffee might burn so open and obvious that McDonalds could not be held liable? Whatever your decision, keep in mind that on virtually identical facts in other cases, juries and courts have reached differing conclusions.

by Thomas C. Pavlik, Jr.
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