Both the McDonald’s Coffee Case and The American Pants Case were landmark cases concerning the somewhat controversial nature of product liability tort law in the US. Both were branded as ‘frivolous’ for their excessive, unreasonable nature – including their considered…
ts’ willingness to massively punish large corporations financially, the latter ironically suggests what claims could arise if such a practice were to be over-applied. It is clear by both cases that a balance must be struck which finds a middle-ground between the two extremes.
In 1992, Stella Liebeck bought a cup of coffee from her local drive-through McDonald’s restaurant in New Mexico. Having stopped to sugar the coffee, she spilled the contents over her lap upon trying to remove the lid. Her upper legs, groin and buttocks suffered third-degree burns and she spent over a week in hospital to undergo skin grafts and a further two years of treatment. As a result, she lost a considerable deal of weight, and incurred medical costs.
A battle then ensued between McDonald’s and Steinbeck, over a settlement for Steinbeck’s medical costs – McDonald’s initially would not cover even the medical costs, and offered a modest $800. Steinbeck then brought a claim of gross negligence, stating that the coffee manufactured by McDonald’s was defective and unreasonably dangerous. McDonald’s refused all offers to settle for various sums of money before the trial took place.
The main issue surrounding Liebeck’s case was the temperature at which McDonald’s served its coffee. It was argued that the high temperature would cause third-degree burns in very little time, and that a slight reduction would provide valuable time allowing the spillage to be removed from the skin and reduce the extent of burns. McDonald’s argued that serving coffee at such a temperature would allow it to be drinkable for a long period of time, and that those buying it at the drive-through would want to drink the coffee over (or after) a prolonged period of time. It came to light that 700 other reports and claims existed of other customers being burned by McDonald’s coffee (McDonald’s v Greenlee), although McDonald’s argued that this was not a sufficient number to lower the ...
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