QUESTION McDonald’s really paid damages
for a customer’s spilled hot coffee?


You may have heard of the “McDonaldʼs hot coffee case” before. Maybe you know that in 1992 an elderly woman went to a McDonaldʼs drive-through window, spilled coffee on herself, sued McDonaldʼs, and was eventually awarded millions of dollars after a jury trial. You might think that American juries are ridiculous. If this was the complete story, you might be right. But when studying the law, it is important to understand all of the facts before jumping to a conclusion.

Many people imagined that an irresponsible individual was drinking coffee while driving. Would your opinion change if you knew that the plaintiff, Stella Liebeck, was a passenger in a car driven by her grandson? And that the car was not moving when Ms. Liebeck tried to take the lid off of the coffee cup to add cream and sugar? And that she put the cup between her knees to try and open the cup? And would your opinion change if you knew that the coffee spilled onto Ms. Liebeckʼs lap (in a very sensitive area!) and soaked into her clothing so that hot coffee caused severe, painful burns that required surgery and staying in the hospital for over a week?

Maybe your opinion still has not changed. After all, everyone knows that coffee is hot. But what if you learned that McDonaldʼs served its coffee at a temperature of 82–88℃, which was significantly hotter than most other restaurants? Would it matter if an expert reported that coffee at such temperatures is impossible for a human to drink without getting burned? What if approximately seven hundred other people complained about burns from McDonaldʼs coffee between 1983 and 1992, but the company still refused to lower the temperature?

There are more facts that most news reports at the time did not mention. For example, Ms. Liebeck originally asked McDonaldʼs for just $20,000 to pay for her medical expenses (emergency care in the United States can be much more expensive than in Japan). However, McDonaldʼs only offered to pay $800 to settle the claim.

Under tort law, a person can sue for “compensatory damages” for the losses they suffer. Compensatory damages may include not just hospital costs, but additional losses such as rehabilitation, medication, lost wages from missing work, and pain. In addition, unlike in Japan, American tort law may require a defendant to pay additional “punishment money” for their bad action. Punishment payments are called “punitive damages”. Punitive damages not only punish the current harmful action, but also discourage others from doing the same thing in the future.

In the United States, individuals have the right to a jury trial in not just criminal cases, but also civil cases. After carefully considering all of the evidence from the lawyers for Ms. Liebeck and McDonaldʼs, the jury determined that McDonaldʼs had to pay $160,000 for their actions leading to Ms. Liebeckʼs injuries. In addition, the jury decided to punish McDonaldʼs by awarding punitive damages of $2,700,000. It is possible that the amount would have been lowered if the case was appealed to a higher court. Unfortunately, the details of the final outcome may never be publicly known. Following the trial, the parties signed a confidential settlement agreement, so that a mutually agreeable payment could be made and neither side could appeal the outcome to a higher court.

While many news reports thought it was entertaining to write about a crazy lawsuit, not many took the time to look at all of the facts. Maybe your opinion about the McDonaldʼs hot coffee case is different from before you knew the details. Maybe not. Different people, just like different legal systems, may reach different conclusions from the same facts. Comparing Japanese law with American law can help develop a more critical view of both systems. By looking at both legal systems as a student in the College of Law, you will learn about the best (and worst) points of each country. In the meantime, we may all agree that it is safest to avoid drinking extremely hot coffee while studying!