The Truth About The McDonald's Coffee Case

There probably has been no more talked about personal injury case in recent years than the so-called “McDonald’s coffee case,” the lawsuit filed by 79-year-old Stella Liebeck. Large corporations often cited this as an example of a “frivolous” lawsuit and why we should restrict the rights of consumers who are injured by accidents or defective products. However, if anyone takes the time to learn the truth about the case, they would see that it was anything but frivolous, and that it instead was a clear example of a company intentionally disregarding customer safety. Here is the truth.

McDonald’s had been told for years that they were serving their coffee too hot. Most people serve coffee at about 135ºF, but McDonald’s had a company policy that its coffee would be served between 180-190ºF! At that temperature, full-thickness burns can occur in two to seven (2-7) seconds if there was a spill. Before Stella Liebeck ever purchased her coffee on that fateful day, McDonald’s had received more than 700 complaints about their coffee being too hot yet they continued to sell it. 

Stella purchase her coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru while she was a passenger in a car. The car was standing still and when Stella went to open her cup, the coffee spilled and she suffered second- and third-degree burns in her inner thigh, buttocks, genitalia. She spent eight (8) days in the hospital and had skin graft surgery.

Before ever filing a lawsuit, Stella offered to settle for $20,000, but McDonald’s refused. After a lawsuit was filed but before it went to court a neutral mediator recommended that the parties settle for $225,000, but again McDonald’s refused. Therefore, the case was presented in court, and the jury awarded her $200,000. They also said that McDonald’s deserved to be punished for selling coffee they knew was causing burns, and so they awarded $2,700,000 in punitive damages. The punitive damage award represented about two days worth of McDonald’s coffee sales throughout the corporation. The judge later reduced Stella’s award to $480,000, and she accepted that.

That is the real story behind the McDonald’s coffee case. If you want to learn more, check out the new documentary film entitled “Hot Coffee” which goes into more detail about how large corporations have tried to distort this story for their own benefit. The movie has gotten very positive reviews.