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Law and change: Scottish legal heroes
Law and change: Scottish legal heroes

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3.1 USA

You may have read or heard about instances of significant damages being awarded in the USA where a very wide concept of to whom a duty of care is owed has developed. A famous case was Liebeck v McDonald's Restaurant (1995) WL 360309 (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. 1994).

As part of his judgment in Donoghue Lord Atkin cited Benjamin N. Cardozo in MacPherson v Buick Motor Co in support of his view. In this 1916 case a wooden wheel fell off a car causing injury. The defendant had manufactured but not sold the car. The case was heard in New York Court of Appeals where Cardozo noted:

‘If the nature of a thing is such that it is reasonably certain to place life and limb in peril when negligently made, it is then a thing of danger. Its nature gives warning of the consequence to be expected. If to the element of danger there is added knowledge that the thing will be used by persons other than the purchaser, and used without new tests, then, irrespective of contract, the manufacturer of this thing of danger is under a duty to make it carefully. That is as far as we need to go for the decision of this case . . . . If he is negligent, where danger is to be foreseen, a liability will follow.’

This case sparked a national debate about tort reform in the US and is one of the most famous modern (international) day examples of a product liability suit. The jury awarded the plaintiff (in Scotland the term is ‘pursuer’), Mrs Liebeck, an 80-year-old woman who spilled a McDonald’s coffee on herself, $2.7 million in punitive damages (the amount was later reduced to $480,000 by the judge). There was a public outcry at the outrageous sum awarded by the jury. However, the full facts were not well known. The press focused on a headline that would generate maximum public interest – that a woman who spilled coffee on herself hit the jackpot. This presented only a partial picture and few people ever learnt about the full details of the injury or about McDonald’s conduct in handling the claim which the trial judge described as ‘reckless, callous and wilful’.

What is also less reported was the fact that McDonald’s was serving its coffee 30 degrees higher than allowed by state law. McDonald’s had been warned about this by the Arizona inspectors over 10 times before, as at this temperature, the coffee would cause a third-degree burn in two to seven seconds. Other documents obtained from McDonald’s showed that from 1982 to 1992, the company had received more than 700 reports of people burned by McDonald’s coffee to varying degrees of severity. McDonald’s had settled claims arising from scalding injuries for more than $500,000.

Since Liebeck, major vendors of coffee in the USA, including Chick-fil-A, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s and Burger King have also been defendants (defenders) in similar lawsuits over coffee-related burns.