$2.7 Million for Hot Coffee

September 26, 2012

Remember the public outrage about the McDonald’s hot coffee case? It was 1994, and roused many who heard a radio or television snippet or read an Internet or newspaper headline that a New Mexico jury awarded a woman $2.7 million in punitive damages because she burned herself with hot coffee.

My initial impression, instead of outrage, was, “Well, of course, in order for a jury to get the attention of a large conglomerate like McDonald’s to lower the temperature of its coffee to a safer level, the award would have to be in the millions.” And, I thought, there must have been a legitimate injury. I was a paralegal then, and had heard a similar argument: that an award must be high enough to get a wealthy defendant’s attention to make a change in its policy.

The public seemed to use this case as an example of attorney greed and frivolous lawsuits. What the public did not realize was that the plaintiff had attempted to settle the suit for a fraction of the jury verdict, that the 81-year-old plaintiff suffered third degree burns over 6% of her body and lesser burns over sixteen percent of her body, that she had to endure very painful skin grafts, was hospitalized for 8 days, and endured a 9 day trial.

Answer one or more questions:
What is it about large jury awards that infuriate people so? How much of the anger relates to people’s impressions of an attorney benefiting too much economically? Is the public ill-informed about the value that attorneys add to the equation? Does the public realize that, but for the expertise that attorneys apply to a legal matter that goes to trial, the client would likely be entirely without relief?

Should there be a cap on an attorney’s fee in a high award case? Who will regulate that? Are our impressions of attorneys formed by the one bad example that makes the news? Can we grow to differentiate the one bad example of an attorney from the well-meaning, well-educated others who bring clients valuable legal services on a daily basis?

6 thoughts on “$2.7 Million for Hot Coffee”

  1. Thanks for the perspective from the side of the attorney and plaintiff! I have to admit to being one of those that rolled by eyes when I first heard of this lawsuit. But having held a cup of hot coffee with a warning noted on the lid, I see how this lawsuit led to consumer protection.

    1. Yes, thanks to the persistence of the woman and her family, McDonald’s no longer serves its coffee between 180 and 190 degrees. There is no doubt that other concerns that serve coffee heeded the verdict’s warning as well.