Tort Reform: the $3 million coffee spill

Texas Nursing [Vol. 69, No. 3, p. 2], April 1, 1995

It turns out that the woman was severely burned, requiring skin grafts. The coffee wasn’t just “hot,” it was a scalding 180 degrees — 40 degrees hotter than anyone can drink.... Prior to this case, McDonald’s had received some 700 complaints from people burned by its coffee, yet it refused to lower the heat.... The logic to the $2.7 million awarded to punish McDonald’s irresponsibility and deter it from burning others was that it amounted to two days worth of coffee sales.

Tort reform is high on the agenda of both the Congress and the Texas Legislature. Big business says that American juries are out of control — wildly awarding huge payments to anyone who sues a corporation. And of course we nurses have heard the physicians’ side of this issue ad nauseam.

Let’s take a look at the latest “out-of-control” jury award: last fall’s case of a 79-year-old woman who spilled a 49-cent cup of hot McDonald’s coffee in her lap and was awarded $3 million by a jury.

It turns out that the woman was severely burned, requiring skin grafts. The coffee wasn’t just “hot,” it was a scalding 180 degrees — 40 degrees hotter than anyone can drink — an accident waiting to happen. Prior to this case, McDonald’s had received some 700 complaints from people burned by its coffee, yet it refused to lower the heat. One juror claimed that at trial McDonald’s was unrepentant and arrogant.

The logic to the $2.7 million awarded to punish McDonald’s irresponsibility and deter it from burning others was that it amounted to two days worth of coffee sales. And, as is typical, the plaintiff got nowhere near the award. In this case she got only $300,000.

Nurses see the human face of suffering caused by accidents and injuries. I know whenever I hear tall tales of “abuse” or “wild” awards, I always look for the rest of the story. I, for one, am very leery of proposed national and state legislation that would effectively restrict citizens’ access to the courts to sue for damages. Our views count, especially as frontline caregivers; let your state legislators and Congress members know how you feel about this important issue.

Toni Inglis, MSN, RN CNS (retired), FAAN, a lifelong Austin resident and retired neonatal intensive care nurse and editor of NursingNews, writes a monthly opinion column for the Austin American-Statesman editorial page.