In a “discussion” over tort reform and frivolous law suits, the infamous Coffee Case came up. It is frequently erected as the strawman for all that is wrong with the American legal system and is cited as a clarion call for the wide-spread need for tort reform.
For the one or two of you, living on a different planet, who have never heard of this case the facts are simple:
An old lady went through the drive through of her local fast-food emporium, bought a cup of coffee, ignored the common-sense warning on the cup that said, HOT, put the coffee cup between her legs while driving, spilled the coffee, got burned, sued and won a gazillion dollars in a silly law suit that is evidence that our legal system has gone insane.
The problem is that those “facts” are not so factual and the coffee case is not nearly the example of failures in the legal system people want it to be.
Some research divulges:
The company was super-heating their coffee to a temperature far above industry standards.
There had been 700 prior incidents, complaints and reports of burns as to the “super-heated” coffee. (Note: that information, and most of the information below, came during discovery from the company's own records.)
The plaintiff was in the passenger seat of her grandson's car when she was severely burned. After receiving the order, the grandson pulled his car forward and stopped so that plaintiff could add cream and sugar to her coffee. She was NOT driving and the car was NOT moving as has frequently been reported.
She placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup. As she removed the lid, the entire contents of the cup spilled into her lap. The sweatpants she was wearing absorbed the coffee and held it next to her skin.
A vascular surgeon determined that plaintiff suffered full thickness burns (or third-degree burns) over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas.
She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting. She also underwent debridement treatments.
She sought to settle her claim for $20,000, but the company refused.
A company representative said during discovery that the company held its coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees fahrenheit to maintain optimum taste. He admitted that he had not evaluated the safety ramifications at this temperature.
Other establishments sold coffee at substantially lower temperatures.
Experts testified that home coffee makers and coffee served at home is generally 135 to 140 degrees.
The company's quality assurance manager testified that the company actively enforced a requirement that coffee be held in the pot at 185 degrees, plus or minus five degrees.
He also testified that a burn hazard exists with any food substance served at 140 degrees or above,
The company's expert agreed that coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into styrofoam cups, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat.
Plaintiffs' expert, a scholar in thermodynamics applied to human skin burns, testified that liquids, at 180 degrees, will cause a full thickness burn to human skin in two to seven seconds. If plaintiff's spill had involved coffee at 155 degrees (still 15 degrees hotter than coffee generally served at home), the liquid would have cooled and given her time to avoid a serious burn.
The company asserted that customers bought coffee on their way to work or home, intending to consume it there-giving it time to cool. However, the company’s own research showed that customers intend to consume the coffee immediately while driving.
The company argued that consumers know coffee is hot and that its customers want it that way. The company admitted its customers were unaware that they could suffer third-degree burns from the coffee and that the statement on the side of the cup was not a "warning" but a "reminder" since the location of the writing would not warn customers of the real hazard.
The “hazzard” was not hot coffee, but super-heated coffee so the warning/reminder was ineffective as to the real risk.
The jury awarded plaintiff $200,000 in compensatory damages. This amount was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found plaintiff 20 percent at fault in the spill. The jury also awarded plaintiff $2.7 million in punitive damages, which equals about two days of the company's coffee sales. The jury was told during trial how much profit the company made from coffee sales and based its punitive damage award on that.
The trial court subsequently reduced the punitive award to $480,000 -- or three times compensatory damages -- even though the judge called the company's conduct reckless, callous and willful. No one will ever know the final ending to this case. The parties eventually entered into a secret settlement which has never been revealed to the public.
Since an immediate appelate issue existed when the judge reduced the jury award, it is reasonable to believe that the final agreement was somewhere between the $640,000 (compensatory damages + punative damages) the trial judge reduced the award to and the $2.86 Million awarded by a jury.