An explanation of the McDonald’s hot coffee case

We’ve all heard about the woman who spilled hot coffee on herself then sued McDonald’s for millions of dollars and won, right? But what if I told you that the woman’s claim was actually very reasonable given the facts of the case and her injuries? What if this isn’t the frivolous lawsuit you’ve always been led to believe but a legitimate claim brought by a severely injured woman who deserved compensation for her damages?

McDonald's hot coffee drive through

The McDonald’s hot coffee incident

On February 27, 1992, Stella May Liebeck, a 79-year-old resident of Albuquerque, New Mexico, ordered a cup of coffee from the drive-through of her local McDonald’s. She was sitting in the front passenger seat when her grandson came to a stop to allow her to add cream and sugar.

However, when Liebeck took the lid off the top of her drink, she spilled the whole cup of coffee on her lap. Her sweatpants absorbed the hot liquid and held it against her skin, causing severe burns on her thighs, buttocks, and groin. She was rushed to the hospital where she was treated with skin grafting.  She was admitted for eight days.

Liebeck sustained third-degree burns over 6% of her body and lesser burns over 16%. Additionally, she lost 20 lbs. while in the hospital – nearly 20% of her body weight. Liebeck was partially disabled for two years following the incident and suffered permanent scarring.

As a result of the burns, Liebeck incurred medical expenses and would incur future ones to continue her treatment. However, she was willing to settle her personal injury claim against McDonald’s for $20,000. They offered her $800. Knowing her case was worth more than that, Liebeck sued McDonald’s for just compensation, alleging gross negligence and seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

drive through window getting coffee

The McDonald’s coffee trial

The case of Liebeck v. McDonald’s Rests. was heard in August 1994 in front of a twelve-person jury. The testimony in the case revealed that McDonald’s served their coffee between 180°-190° F, which Liebeck’s attorney argued was not the industry standard. According to experts, this would cause third-degree burns in anywhere between three to 15 seconds.

Further evidence showed that McDonald’s had received more than 700 reports of people burned by their coffee and had settled claims related to such burns for more than $500,000. McDonald’s argued they served their coffee at that temperature so that commuters coming through the drive through would still have hot coffee when they got to their destination. This is despite the fact that their research revealed customers intended to drink the coffee immediately while driving.

McDonald’s’ quality control manager argued that over 700 cases of burns was not enough to reevaluate their standards, even though he admitted that serving coffee at this temperature caused burns to the mouth and throat.

The jury found that McDonald’s was 80% at fault for the incident, and Liebeck was 20% at fault. They awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages, which was then reduced to $160,000 to reflect her 20% liability. The jury awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which represented two days’ worth of coffee revenue. However, the judge reduced this amount to $480,000, representing three times the compensatory amount, for a total of $640,000. This decision was appealed by both parties, but the case was later settled out of court for an unknown amount.

person drinking a to go cup of coffee

The aftermath and spin

Following this case, companies ran spin campaigns to convince the American public there was an epidemic of frivolous lawsuits. The media picked it up, leading this case and Liebeck herself to become the butt of many jokes. From Jay Leno, to Seinfeld, to Toby Keith, everyone had something to say about the McDonald’s coffee case, and none of it was good.

The media portrayed Liebeck as greedy and undeserving. The facts got skewed such that she was driving and possibly even spilled her coffee on purpose just for this payout. Public opinion began turning against those who sue and bring lawsuits, which works in companies’ favors. Further, companies have begun funding front groups such as Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse to try to turn public opinion against bringing legal claims.

As a result, the number of personal injury lawsuits in recent decades has declined.

Don’t let someone bully you into not filing a claim

If you or a loved one has been injured as a result of someone else’s negligence, don’t let the corporate insurance companies intimidate you out of a lawsuit and keep you from contacting us. The experienced product liability attorneys at Allen & Allen will walk you through all of your options to obtain the compensation you deserve. Call us for a free consultation today to discuss your specific case at 866-388-1307.