Grade 12: Hot Coffee


This week we began looking at tort law and its relation to the democratic process and democratic values.  As the year winds down and the seniors focus on their thesis presentations, I think this unit works well at dealing with some interesting concepts in a lighter and more relaxed classroom atmosphere.

Tort law deals with the realm of damages and liability in civil courts.  No one goes to jail in tort law cases, but they can still generate a great deal of controversy.  Many of us may have some familiarity with tort law through the famous (or infamous) McDonald’s “Hot Coffee” case from 1992, when 79 year old Stella Leibeck spilled coffee on herself and eventually had a jury award her about $175,000, though the actual settlement amount remains  unknown.

The actual facts got lost in the hype surrounding the case, and the internet does a good job of giving us the story we Hot-Coffee-DVD-Fmay not be aware of.  On the one hand, it seems ridiculous that McDonald’s should be responsible for a customer spilling coffee on themselves.  But on the other hand. . . .

  • By company mandate, McDonald’s kept its coffee at around 185-190 degrees, about 50 degrees hotter than coffee is normally served.  At this temperature, serious burns can result within 2-7 seconds on continued skin contact.
  • Over period of several years, McDonald’s had received several hundred complaints from customers stating that they had been burned by their coffee.
  • Mrs. Leibeck’s burns were extensive.  She required a long hospital stay that involved skin grafts over a large area (the internet has pictures of the burns, and they are extensive).

The case ended up being the subject of a documentary, and spurred on debates surrounding tort reform in various law schools.

The multiple layers of issues make these cases intriguing.

Product Liability

If a product injures you, company liability depends on how you used the product.  If you are mowing the lawn with your lawn-mower in a normal fashion and it blows up and injures you, the company has liability.  If it blows up while you try and use the lawn-mower to chop down a tree, the company has no liability.

In this case, jurors believed that Mrs. Leibeck used the coffee as McDonald’s intended it to be used.  Nothing strange or out of the ordinary happened.


If a product injured someone due to a flaw in the design and the company had no prior knowledge or suspicions, the company will have less liability than if they knew everything and covered it up.  Of course all kinds of grey area exists in between these extremes.  On the one hand, 700 complaints about burns is a large number.  On the other hand, 700 complaints represents about .0001% of all the coffee they sold during that time.  How we see the 700 previous complaints will be crucial for how we assess fault in the case.


In a grocery store, if an employee drops a few bananas by mistake and five seconds later and breaks a hip, would the store be liable?  Perhaps, but that liability would increase dramatically if it had been on the floor for an hour, with customers complaining about them, and the store doing nothing about it.  We had a good discussion over whether or not the number of complaints over time increased or lessened McDonald’s liability.

If a court finds a company liable a jury assesses damages, which come in two forms.

Compensatory damages literally compensate the victim for whatever they lost.  Some aspects of this kind of penalty are easy to assess, like doctor’s bills, time missed from work, and so on.  Here the wealth of the person injured is not a factor.  Just as we return stolen property from mansions, so a wealthy person deserves just compensation.

But very quickly compensatory damages enters murky waters.  If one is physically scarred from an accident due to negligence, how much is that worth?  Would it depend on where the scar was?  Would we compensate a woman more for a scar than a man?  What about emotional scars?  What about lost opportunity?  The subjective nature of these judgments can result in very different jury verdicts (Mrs. Mathwin has a friend who served on a jury in a liability case a few years ago. The jurors disagreed wildly, with some wanting to award the plaintiff a few hundred thousand and others nothing.  Eventually they simply took the average of what each of the 12 jurors thought the plantiff should receive, and that dollar amount — about $25,000 — became their ruling).

Punitive damages punish the company for their wrongdoing, and should deter the company from acting in a similar fashion in the future.  Here the wealth of the company does need to be a factor, for hypothetically if the company had enough resources, the fine might be so small that it would be more profitable for them to continue the negligent behavior.  This is part of the reason why punitive damages can far exceed compensatory damages.


Many thanks,