You may be familiar with — and even outraged by — the famous lawsuit against McDonald’s by Stella Liebeck who was burned by hot coffee.
The jury’s $2.7 million award has long been a poster child for tort reform (the judge actually reduced her award to $480,000). What’s often missed is that:
- The award was medical expenses and two days’ profit from coffee
- Immediately after the award fast food restaurants started serving coffee at around 158 °F — a temperature where it will take 60 seconds to cause third degree burns (enough time to react to a spill and avoid burns).
McDonald’s in Bangkok
The plaintiff in the case wasn’t driving. She was the passenger, the car was stopped, and she removed the coffee lid to add cream and sugar. The coffee spill caused extensive burns to her legs and her groin. She needed skin grafts.
What’s more, McDonald’s had received hundreds of documented complaints about the dangerous temperature at which they were serving coffee, and they conceded it was at a temperature where it couldn’t be consumed immediately. So McDonald’s was deemed negligent.
We now have a new McDonald’s case from the skies. Paddle Your Own Kanoo reports on the conclusion to a National Transport Safety Board investigation of a spilled coffee incident on United Airlines.
On June 26, 2016 United flight UA430 from New Orleans to Chicago O’Hare declared a medical emergency and diverted to Little Rock. Hot coffee had spilled on a child. First aid was provided by a doctor traveling as a passenger on board.
The four flight attendants working the flight told the NTSB that they weren’t using ‘safe pour lids’ for the coffee, because they hadn’t been catered, so they placed a plastic cup in the pot’s spout instead and placed the pot on the top of the service cart, instead of in a tray in the cart where it should have been.
The flight attendants had got to row seven in their in-flight service when one had to return to the galley. The other flight attendant turned their back on the cart for one moment but suddenly heard screaming. It’s still not known whether the coffee pot tipped over or was grabbed by the child who was quickly attended to by a doctor who happened to be on the flight.
United knew this could be an issue which is why they use safe pour lids on coffee pots.
Ronald McDoanld Takes to the Skies!
Complaints about tort law are usually that judgments are too punitive against companies, not that they aren’t punitive enough. Lawsuits are often more effective than legislators and regulators, and companies have a harder time lobbying the former than capturing the latter. Stella Liebec deserved her tort judgment against McDonalds and United appears to have been at fault here, too.
United should have boarded the missing safety item, then no one would have been burned. D0 matters, but ignoring a miscater in this case mattered for safety.