The McDonald's Hot Coffee Case

Ask most non-attorneys about the McDonald's "hot coffee" lawsuit. Chances are, they've heard of it; but the true facts of the case remain a mystery to many people, particularly those who ridicule the plaintiff as someone who took advantage of the legal system for financial gain. But nothing could be further from the truth.

A woman spills a cup of hot coffee on her lap and ends up getting big bucks in court after filing a personal injury lawsuit. This is the most common version of the story. 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

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

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, more than 700 people who were 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, Chris, to take her son to the airport. On the way home, 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 backwards, dumping the scalding liquid onto her lap and saturating the cotton sweat suit she was wearing.

Her grandson Chris jumped out to help, but the near-boiling coffee was already searing her skin. 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. All she remembered was the pain.

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. In fact, 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 her pain and suffering) and triple punitive damages. These punitive damages were sought in order to send a message to McDonald's that their coffee was dangerously hot.

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

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 that 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 Hot Coffee Case Didn't Change Much

McDonald's still hasn't learned its lesson. Other people have reported similar injuries after spilling McDonald's coffee. In September 1997, a seventy-three year old woman suffered first and second degree burns when a cup of McDonald's coffee spilled on her lap. At the time, McDonald's still kept its coffee at 180 degrees Fahrenheit.

Don't Get Scalded by McDonald's Hot Coffee: Use Precaution

Consumers should be aware of the potential harm that can result from spilling McDonald's -- or any -- coffee onto their skin. Serious, third degree burns occur at 185 degrees Fahrenheit in just two seconds. Skin grafting and other expensive medical treatment may be needed to treat injured customers. The costs can exceed tens of thousands of dollars and inflict prolonged pain. Some customers can become permanently disabled.

There are precautions one can take. Make sure that children don't have access to scalding liquids. Also, handle McDonald's coffee with care and take steps to avoid accidents. Finally, make sure you know the facts before buying into sensationalized stories permeating our culture. A widespread products liability issue can affect the lives of hundreds, even thousands, of people.

Have You Been Burned by McDonald's Hot Coffee? Get a Free Claim Evaluation

Injuries can happen to anyone at any time, without notice, due to the negligence of another party. Even a hot cup of coffee can give rise to an injury claim if it is unreasonably and dangerously hot, as the McDonald's hot coffee case confirms. Take charge of your life and get a free legal review of your products liability claim from an experienced, local attorney.

Next Steps

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