Strict Liability Exercise- Business Law & Ethics to an external site.

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Hot Coffee, Anyone?

Imagine that you own a business that sells beverages and food, including coffee.  One day one of your employees sells coffee to an elderly woman who subsequently spills the coffee in her lap and brings a lawsuit against your business.

This actually happened to McDonalds in 1994.

Watch the video above and follow these links to read articles with alternate views of the “truth” about this case: (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. Links to an external site.

The plaintiff in this case alleged that the McDonald’s coffee was unreasonably dangerous and McDonald’s was strictly liable to the plaintiff.  The plaintiff also alleged that the coffee was “manufactured defectively due to excessive heat;” further she alleged that, the container itself had no warnings, or had a lack of warnings, rendering the product defectively marketed.”

Based on these limited facts and the facts provided in the video and the article and based on the law as outlined below, answer the following four questions.

  1. Do you feel that the plaintiff in this case would have been able to meet all of the requirements necessary for a strict product liability suit against McDonald’s? See pages 139 – 140 for more information.  Answer this question by applying the facts of the McDonald’s case to the law as outlined below.

The basis for an action in strict liability can be summarized: as a set of six requirements:

  • The product must be in a defective condition when the defendant sells it.
  • The defendant must normally be engaged in the business of selling (or otherwise distributing) that product.
  • The product must be “unreasonably dangerous” to the user or consumer because of its defective conditionThe plaintiff must incur physical harm to self or property by use or consumption of the product.
  • The defective condition must be the proximate cause of the injury or damage.
  • The goods must not have been substantially changed from the time the product was sold to the time the injury was sustained.

Please ensure that you provide facts from the case to support or deny each of the requirements above.

2.Was the McDonald’s Coffee Unreasonably Dangerous? See page 140 of your textbook for more information.  Apply the facts of the case to the law as outlined below:

Courts generally consider a product so defective as to be an “unreasonably dangerous” in either of the following situations:

  • The product was dangerous beyond the expectation of the ordinary consumer; or
  • A less dangerous alternative was economically feasible for the manufacturer, but the manufacturer failed to produce it.


  1. A product may be “unreasonably dangerous” due to the manufacturing process, the design, or the warning.
  2. Was the McDonald’s Coffee Unreasonably Dangerous due to the Manufacturing Process? See pg 140 of your textbook for more information.  Apply the facts of the case to the law as outlined below:

A manufacturing defect is a departure from a product unit’s design specifications that results in products that are physically flawed, damaged, or incorrectly assembled.


  1. Was the McDonald’s Coffee Unreasonably Dangerous due to Design Defects? See pages 140-141 of your textbook for more information.  Apply the facts of the case to the law as outlined below:

To successfully assert a design defect, a plaintiff has to show that:

  1. A reasonable alternative design was available.
  2. As a result of the defendant’s failure to adopt the alternative design, the product was not reasonably safe.


  1. Was the McDonald’s Coffee Unreasonably Dangerous due to Inadequate Warnings? See pgs 141-143 of your textbook for more information. Apply the facts of the case to the law as outlined below:

A product will be considered defective due to inadequate warnings:

  • When the foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the provision of reasonable instructions or warnings by the seller or other distributor; and
  • The omission of the instructions or warnings renders the product not reasonably safe.
  1. Were any of the defenses to product liability outlined on pages 144-147 of your textbook applicable in this case? If so, why?  If not, why not?  Please provide a thorough analysis of the law as applied to the facts in this case.


5.What types of damages were awarded in the McDonald’s case? Given the facts of the case, do you feel that the damage award was reasonable? Why or why not?

  1. This case is also a difficult case from an ethical perspective.  Should ethical business owners take active steps to discourage strict product liability suits, or should ethical business owners support these types of lawsuits in order maintain a successful and ethical business environment?



Sample Solution