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The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case: Separating Fact From Fiction

The McDonald's "hot coffee" lawsuit from 1994 was popular in the news, but the facts of the case remain a mystery to many people. The plaintiff was ridiculed for a frivolous lawsuit and for taking advantage of the legal system for financial gain. But nothing could be further from the truth.

The most common version of the story involves a woman spilling a cup of hot coffee on her lap. She then files a personal injury lawsuit asking for large amounts of money in damages.  Beyond that, the facts become murky for most people.

Here are some of the commonly overlooked facts of the case formally known as Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants.

McDonald's Hot Coffee Case: The Facts

To separate facts from the myths surrounding this infamous case, we've provided some of the key undisputed facts shared at trial.

Note: a similar situation occurred in June 2023. In San Francisco, Mable Childress picked up a hot coffee cup that did not have the lid properly put on, and suffered burns.

Company Policy on Coffee Temperature

McDonald's coffee was served at a temperature between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit. McDonald's had long known that this was 20 to 30 degrees hotter than the coffee served at most other restaurants.

In fact, this temperature range was indicated in its operations manual. In the 10 years before the case, over 700 people scalded by coffee burns made claims against the company. But McDonald's never lowered the temperature of its coffee.

How the Coffee Actually Spilled

The plaintiff in the case was 79-year-old Stella Liebeck. How her spill unfolded is widely misunderstood. She was not driving a car when she was injured. In fact, she was not driving at all.

She had gone with her grandson and son to the airport. On the way home, her grandson Chris pulled into a McDonald's drive-thru for breakfast. He parked the car so she could add cream and sugar to her coffee.

Because the car had no cup holders and a slanted dashboard, Stella Liebeck put the cup between her knees and removed the lid. As she did so, the slick Styrofoam cup flipped backward, dumping the scalding liquid onto her lap. The liquid saturated the cotton sweat suit she was wearing.

Her grandson Chris jumped out to help, but the near-boiling coffee was already searing her skin down to the muscle. By the time Chris was able to bring her to the emergency room, she had third-degree burns across her groin, thighs, genitalia, and buttocks. Stella Liebeck was badly injured.

Initial Request for Coverage of Medical Expenses

Stella Liebeck spent seven days in the hospital. She spent another three weeks recovering at home, where her daughter traveled to take care of her.

Stella Liebeck's family initially asked McDonald's to cover her out-of-pocket expenses. This amounted to about $2,000 plus her daughter's lost wages. McDonald's offered $800.

McDonald's Knew the Coffee Was Dangerously Hot

A McDonald's Quality Control manager testified that McDonald's knew of the risk of dangerously hot coffee. The company had no plans to either turn down the heat or warn their customers of the scalding danger. Another McDonald's witness testified that they had received 700 complaints before Stella Liebeck's case.

McDonald's Refused to Pay Liebeck More Than $800

McDonald's refused to raise its compensation offer above $800. Stella Liebeck filed suit. Her lawsuit asked for $100,000 in compensatory damages (including for pain and suffering) and triple punitive damages.

These increased punitive damages were sought after the $2000 plus lost wages were denied. This lawsuit intended to send McDonald's a message that their coffee was dangerously hot.

Liebeck Didn't Get 'Millions' of Dollars From McDonald's

The jury decided on a punitive damage award of $2.7 million. A month after the trial, the judge reduced the jury's punitive damages award of $2.7 million to $640,000.

He reasoned that this amount was approximately three times the compensatory damages. He also said the case "was not a runaway" case and the revised amount would be "appropriate to punish and deter" McDonald's for the safety hazards posed by its hot coffee.

However, the parties entered into a settlement for less than $640,000 (the exact amount is unknown) in exchange for McDonald's dropping its planned appeal.

The McDonald's Coffee Case Didn't Change Much

It seems as though McDonald's still hasn't learned its lesson. Other people have reported similar injuries after spilling McDonald's coffee.

In 2019 and 2020, two cases were filed in Texas alleging injuries from spilling too-hot coffee, and a new situation (noted above) occurred in 2023.

Use Precaution Around McDonald's Coffee

Consumers should be aware of the potential harm that can result from spilling any hot liquid onto their skin. Serious third-degree burns occur at 185 degrees Fahrenheit in just two seconds.

Skin grafting and other expensive medical treatments may be needed to treat injured victims. The costs can exceed tens of thousands of dollars and inflict prolonged pain. Some customers can become permanently disabled.

Have You Been Burned by Hot Coffee? Talk to a Lawyer Today.

Ensure you know the facts before buying into sensationalized stories permeating our culture. A widespread product liability issue can affect the lives of hundreds, even thousands, of people. Learning the facts and speaking up can help others avoid injuries.

Injuries can happen to anyone at any time due to the negligence of another party. Even a hot cup of coffee can bring an injury claim if it is unreasonably and dangerously hot, as the McDonald's hot coffee case confirms.

Speak with an experienced, local product liability attorney if you or someone you know has been through a similar situation.

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