The McDonald's "hot coffee" lawsuit
Note: I originally wrote this in September of 2009.
Back in 1992, a 79-year-old woman placed a cup of McDonald's coffee in her lap, and was burned when she placed the cup in her lap and removed the lid to put cream and sugar in the coffee. Yes, we have all heard a million times about how someone should have more "common sense" than to put a cup of hot coffee between their legs after getting it from the drive through. The prevailing wisdom about this is that McDonald's was sued for a customer's lack of "common sense" and the lawsuit has been used as an example of the "need" for tort reform.
The issue that isn't often discussed is whether the product itself was defective in a way that caused unreasonable danger to consumers. Specifically, the court found that McDonald's coffee was significantly hotter than the industry standard, and was therefore more dangerous than coffee served elsewhere. Coffee is generally served at about 140 degrees, but McDonald's served their coffee at 180 degrees. McDonald's had received and ignored complaints about the temperature of their coffee, deciding instead to maintain this temperature. Because McDonald's knew their coffee was dangerously hot, the plaintiff was entitled to some damages for the injuries she suffered from the burns.
The burns themselves were serious. She required skin grafts and was in recovery from her injuries for a long time. All of this was complicated by the fact that she was an elderly woman, which means her body is less able to heal from an injury like this than a 20-year-old's body would. The bottom line here is that if a company makes a product that is dangerous beyond industry standards, that company should be held liable for damages in court. Just as few people would argue that the infamous Ford Pinto was not a defective product, coffee served at 40 degrees above industry standard should be viewed the same way.