McDonald's hot coffee lawsuitWhat really happened during the McDonald's hot coffee lawsuit? It wasn’t nearly as “frivolous” as you may have been led to believe.

When we think of the “hot coffee lawsuit,” Mcdonald's comes immediately to mind. Though it has been more than 30 years since Liebeck v. McDonalds Restaurants (No. CV-93-02419), this case remains synonymous with consumer safety, and strict food safety protocols, and “tort reform.”

What is Liebeck v. McDonald's About?

On February 27, 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck ordered a 49-cent cup of coffee from the drive-through window of a local McDonald’s restaurant located at 5001 Gibson Boulevard S.E. in her hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Liebeck was in the passenger’s seat of her grandson’s Toyota, which did not have cup holders; her grandson Chris parked the car so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. 

Liebeck placed the coffee cup between her knees and pulled the far side of the lid toward her to remove it. In the process, she spilled the entire cup of coffee on her lap. Liebeck was wearing cotton sweatpants; they absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin, scalding her thighs, buttocks, and groin. 

Liebeck originally asked McDonalds for $20,000, the cost of her medical bills. McDonalds offered her $800, at which point Liebeck retained an attorney. During the discovery process, her lawyers found that not only was McDonalds coffee made to be about 50 degrees hotter than other chain-restaurant coffee, but that they had recorded more than 700 similar claims in the last 10 years (1982-1992).

The jury awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages to Liebeck, which was reduced to $160,000 in collectible damages, as the jury found Liebeck 20 percent liable for the spill. The jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages. Afterward, the trial court reduced punitive damages to $480,000.

Since the verdict, McDonalds employees and management team members, including training crew members, are more aware of  the potential for danger when serving hot coffee. Fast-food restaurants now have strict food safety protocols that reduce both customer complaints and the potential for injury. McDonalds also trains their crew to ensure lids are safely in place and at a consumable temperature at the moment of purchase. 

A similar case arose in 2023, when 85-year-old Mable Childress sued a San Francisco McDonalds after suffering severe burns from their coffee. Childress reported her experience as “severe burns and emotional distress.” The McDonald's management team spoke to reporters shortly after this incident. “We take every customer complaint seriously,” they said, as reported in NPR., “[When] Ms. Childress reported her experience to us later that day, our employees and management team spoke to her within a few minutes and offered assistance." 

How Hot Was The Coffee In The Mcdonald's Lawsuit?

The coffee was heated to somewhere between 180 to 190 degrees. This resulted in a severe burn injury that was much worse than many people realize. According to her vascular surgeon, Liebeck suffered third-degree burns on 6 percent of her body, including her vagina, perineum, buttocks, thighs, and groin area. She was hospitalized for eight (8) days, and lost 20% of her body weight.

What Exactly Is “tort Reform” And Who Wants It?

We have all heard the McDonald's hot coffee case story about the “greedy old lady who got rich suing McDonald’s for her coffee being too hot.” Doesn’t everyone know that coffee is hot? How can we allow a person to get rich from such a stupid and frivolous lawsuit? How stupid is it that McDonald’s has to put a warning label on their cups that their coffee is hot? You can either read further to know “the rest of the story”—or continue to accept the “tort reform propaganda” that corporate America has pushed down our throats.

How Did Mcdonald's Lose The “Hot Coffee” Lawsuit?

During the trial, it was revealed that McDonald’s knew that heating their coffee to this temperature would be dangerous, but they did it anyway because it would save them money. When you serve coffee that is too hot to drink, it will take much longer for a person to drink their coffee, which means that McDonald’s will not have to give out as many free refills of coffee. This policy by the fast food chain is the reason the jury awarded $2.7 million dollars in punitive damages in the McDonald's hot coffee case. Punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant for their inappropriate business practice.

What Is The Truth About The Mcdonald's Coffee Lawsuit?

While everyone has heard of the “McDonald's hot coffee lawsuit” and may think that the settlement was far too high, few people have taken the time to debunk the legal myths about this important case. 

The plaintiff, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck, suffered third-degree burns on 6% of her skin and lesser burns over 16%. It is easy enough to find photographs of the burns to Ms. Liebeck’s legs and groin area online, but I must warn you that these photographs are graphic and are not for the weak of heart.

She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent skin grafting. During this period, Liebeck lost 20 pounds (nearly 20% of her body weight), reducing her to 83 pounds. Two years of medical treatment followed this terrible ordeal.

On June 27, 2011, HBO premiered a documentary about tort reform problems titled Hot Coffee. The documentary is very informative and intriguing. I would encourage anyone reading this article to view it and form their own judgment. The documentary is available for free on Amazon Prime. You can see the trailer here. You can also listen to a short podcast about the case by the American Museum of Tort Law.

At one point in the film, the lawyer for Ms. Liebeck is deposing a quality control executive with McDonald’s. The attorney for Ms. Liebeck first asks this gentleman whether he would suggest that people should consume coffee when it’s 180-190 degrees. He brazenly states that no one should even think about drinking coffee when it’s that hot because it could cause terrible burns to the throat. Next, he is asked how he feels about the hundreds and hundreds of burn incidents that have taken place as a result of McDonald’s extremely hot coffee. Incredibly he declares that he is proud of those numbers because he thought they would actually be much higher.

Similarities to the Ford Pinto Fiasco

We saw this to a much more serious degree when Ford decided to continue selling the Pinto even when they knew that it could blow up. Ford determined that they could save money if they paid out damages to the families of people who were hurt or killed when their Pinto blew up, instead of recalling the vehicles. An inner company memo was found and published by Mother Jones Magazine. The memo outlined the following:

Ford expected sales of 11 million Pintos, and a total cost per unit to modify the
fuel tank of $11, a recall would have cost Ford $121 million.

But, using mathematical formulations of a probable 2,100 accidents that might result in 180 burn deaths, 180 seriously burned victims, and 2,100 burned-out vehicles, the “unit cost” per accident, assuming an out-of-court settlement, came to a probable $200,000 per death, $67,000 per serious injury, and $700 per burned-out vehicle, leaving a grand total of $49.53 million. Allowing the accidents to occur represented a net savings of nearly $70 million. Therefore, a human life was mathematically proven to be worth less than an $11 part. Ford continued to build and market the Pinto without modifications until news of the memo broke.

The McDonald's Hot Coffee Case Wouldn't Have Happened in Maryland

Of note, the McDonald’s hot coffee case would have never happened in Maryland. Ms. Liebeck wouldn’t have received one penny to compensate her for her terrible and disfiguring injuries suffered at the hands of McDonald’s. The great state of Maryland is one of the last few remaining dinosaurs who have refused to adopt the concept of comparative negligence. Instead, Maryland has held fast to the arcane, outdated, and unjust concept of contributory negligence. In its most basic form, contributory negligence says that if you are even 1% at fault in contributing to an accident or injury, then you will get nothing for your injuries, no matter how terrible they may be. The majority of states follow the concept of comparative negligence, which says that if you are 1 percent at fault, then you will still be compensated for your injuries, but your total award will be reduced in value by 1 percent.

In the McDonald’s hot coffee case, Ms. Liebeck was found to be partially to blame for her injuries from the way she removed the lid from her coffee cup. Her award was reduced by the percentage that the jury found her to blame for her injuries. In Maryland, because she was partly to blame for her injuries, she would have been barred from recovering anything for her terrible injuries. Not only that, but Maryland also has a cap for non-economic damages, i.e. pain and suffering. The legislature in the state of Maryland has told us that no matter how much you suffer from your injuries, the value of your life cannot be greater than $800,000.

Want More Info for a Similar Issue?

Contact our exerienced Hagerstown personal injury attorney now! If you or a loved one has suffered a similar injury and would like more information on how to proceed with a case, contact our office online or give us a call at (301) 790-3600 today.

Join The Conversation
Post A Comment