Most people in the United States remember something about the Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants case. The case involved a woman, Stella Liebeck, who suffered third degree burns after spilling McDonald’s hot coffee on her pelvic region. The case became famous due to the fact that Ms. Liebeck was eventually awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages. The case, which sparked a national debate about tort reform, is one of the most famous examples of a product liability suit. Many people thought that Ms. Liebeck was at fault since she spilled the coffee on herself. However, it was decided that McDonalds’ failure to warn consumers about the dangerously hot temperature of their coffee was actually a marketing defect. Marketing defects are one of three forms of product liability detailed in Restatement of the Law Third, Torts: Product Liability, which established legal standards appropriate to various product defects including:

Manufacturing Defects– when the product departs from its intended design, even when all care was observed

Design Defects– when a product’s design could have been altered to mitigate foreseeable risks of harm, especially when a failure to alter a design renders a product not reasonably safe

Inadequate Instructions or Warning Defects– when foreseeable risks of harm could have been avoided by including reasonable instructions, and failure to do so renders a product not reasonably safe.

During the so-named “McDonalds Coffee Case”, the prosecution attempted to posit (what do you mean) McDonald’s Restaurants’ failure to warn Ms. Liebeck of the extreme temperature of their coffee as an example of product liability—a warning defect.

Though McDonald’s argued that consumers should be aware that coffee is hot, the prosecution brought in a thermodynamics expert witness with experience in regards to human skin burns. The expert witness showed that the coffee at McDonald’s was kept between 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit (most coffee served at home is only 135-140 degrees). The expert showed that at 180 degrees, it only takes 2-3 seconds for coffee to cause a third degree burn. McDonald’s had been advised to keep their coffee at extreme temperatures due to the fact that it improves the taste of the coffee as well as provides cooling time for commuters on their way to work. The expert witness’ testimony was not only instrumental in the prosecution’s victory, it resulted in McDonald’s reducing the temperature of their coffee to 158 degrees.

Product liability cases can be complex. Like in the Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, an expert witness can have a dramatic effect on a trial’s outcome. Expert witnesses can tip the balance in either the defense or prosecution’s favor. If you are involved in a product liability case, consider retaining an expert witness.