The Truth About the Infamous McDonald’s / Hot Coffee Incident

Brandon M. asks: Is it true that McDonalds had to pay millions of dollars to someone because she spilled hot coffee on herself or is it an urban legend?

coffee2The infamous McDonald’s “Hot Coffee” legal battle is considered by many to be a premier example of a frivolous lawsuit. The general story is often told that a woman named Stella Liebeck visited a McDonald’s drive-thru and purchased a cup of coffee. She then drove away with the coffee sitting between her legs while also removing the lid. That combination caused coffee to spill all over her lap. The resulting burns allowed her to file suit and win almost $3 million from McDonald’s.

While that oft’ repeated version makes for an entertaining story, it is a bit removed from what really happened and why Liebeck managed to win the case.

Stella Liebeck was seventy-nine years old in February of 1992 when she and her grandson went through the drive-thru at a McDonald’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The retired store clerk sat in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car when she bought a coffee, and he parked the car in the restaurant’s parking lot so she could add sugar and cream to her drink with the car stopped.

Liebeck held the cup between her legs (the Ford Probe she was in did not have cup holders) while removing the lid, and the cup slipped. It spilled coffee later estimated to be between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit all over her legs and groin. Her sweatpants absorbed the extremely hot coffee and kept it against her skin, worsening the injury. The result was third-degree burns over 6% of her body and other burns on an additional 10%. She spent eight days in the hospital to treat the burns to her genitals, legs, and butt. During that time, she lost 20% of her body weight (bringing her down to 83 pounds) and she had to endure skin grafts and a procedure where doctors remove dead tissue from a wound, known as debridement. The burns also left her with significant scars and partially disabled for two years.

When Liebeck first contacted McDonald’s to let them know what had happened, she asked for them to cover the cost of her medical bills. She reportedly wanted around $11,000. McDonald’s felt that because they really had nothing to do with how the coffee was spilled, they shouldn’t be liable, but did offer her a payment of $800. She refused their counteroffer and hired an attorney.

Texas attorney Reed Morgan agreed to take on Liebeck’s case. This happened to be Morgan’s second time facing off against McDonald’s over hot coffee. Years earlier, he represented woman from Houston who also received third-degree burns from McDonald’s coffee. That case was settled out of court with the plaintiff receiving $27,500 in damages.

These two cases were not the only ones McDonald’s had to deal with concerning the scalding temperature of its coffee. Between 1982 and 1992, the fast food giant received more than 700 reports of coffee burning customers and paid over $500,000 to settle coffee-related lawsuits. A number of the reported injuries bore a striking resemblance to those suffered by Liebeck, including many instances of third-degree burns.

Morgan offered to settle the case before it went to trial for the sum of $300,000, but McDonald’s legal team again refused. Both sides also attended mediation ahead of the jury trial at the judge’s order, and the mediator recommended McDonald’s pay Liebeck a settlement of $225,000.

Again, McDonald’s refused. Why they were being so adamant in this case and not many other similar ones that occurred before isn’t clear. Some speculate McDonald’s was wanting to settle the issue once and for all to avoid having to continue to deal with these frivolous hot coffee lawsuits, but picking a case where a frail, elderly woman who was severely burned perhaps wasn’t the smartest plan if that was their motivation. Whatever the case, the trial went forward, lasting seven days in August of 1994.

McDonald’s legal team argued that Liebeck failed to minimize the chance of injury by holding the coffee between her thighs in the first place and she should have removed her sweatpants immediately upon spilling the coffee. They also stated that they’d have to lower the temperature of the coffee to unpalatable levels to completely eliminate the risk of such spill burns.

third degree burnsLiebeck’s crew fired back that at 190 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature around which McDonald’s serves its coffee at, it takes only about three seconds to produce third-degree burns, and that lowering the temperature to 160 degrees would be much safer, needing about 20 seconds to cause similar third degree burns. (It should be noted that the latter estimates presented by Liebeck’s team do not line up with data from the American Burn Association, see chart from them to the right.)

Testimony from a McDonald’s quality control manager, Chris Appleton, when questioned by Liebeck’s attorney, Reed Morgan, revealed he knew, of course, that coffee served at those temperatures was dangerous.

“Q: [Y]ou know, as a matter of fact, that coffee is a hazard, selling it at 180 to 190 degrees, don’t you?

A: I have testified before, the fact that this coffee can cause burns.

Q: It is hazardous at this temperature?

A: At that high temperature the coffee is a hazard.”

Appleton then stated customers could not safely drink the coffee within the first few minutes of receiving it without cooling measures. He was also on the receiving end of Morgan’s questioning when the lawyer drove home the company’s neglect for safety when they refused to change their procedures.

“Q: … I’m curious because I’ve shown you recordations here of some 700 people here that have been burned [by McDonald’s coffee]. Obviously, to you 700 people burned is not a significantly high enough number to turn down the heat. Do you have in mind a number of how many people would have to be burned for you to become so concerned that you would insist that burn specialists be consulted and something be done to sell this coffee at a lower temperature?

A: No, I don’t have a number in mind.”

Appleton also stated that the company had no intention of changing its coffee temperature policies, despite what happened to Liebeck and others before her, stating, “There are more serious dangers in restaurants.”

Another witness for McDonald’s, engineer P. Robert Knaff, noted that the number of injuries was statistically insignificant when measured against the annual sale of billions of cups of coffee.

Though unequivocally true on all counts, being seemingly nonchalant about injuries to customers was really the heart of why McDonald’s lost this otherwise frivolous lawsuit, at least according to interviews with some of the jurors after the fact.

As juror Jerry Goens noted, before the case, he thought it somewhat silly and that he “wasn’t convinced as to why I needed to be there to settle a coffee spill.”

Over the course of the trial, however, the jurors’ opinions changed, not so much because of what happened to Liebeck or the circumstances of the specific case, but, as one of the jurors, Jack Elliot, noted, the seemingly “callous disregard for the safety of the people” that McDonald’s exhibited in the case.  Another juror noted, “there was a person behind every number and I don’t think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that.”

Presumably making such claims like that if Liebeck wasn’t so old, this wouldn’t have been as much of a problem (with her burns likely being less severe if she had the skin of a younger person, according to McDonald’s) didn’t help the company out in this regard.

The jury spent little time deciding that McDonald’s was liable for Liebeck’s injures. They initially awarded her $200,000 for her injuries, but reduced that number to $160,000 after deciding Liebeck bore 20% of the responsibility for the incident. Then they awarded her punitive damages, or damages used to send a message to the party responsible, in the amount of an additional $2.7 million. The jurors came to the $2.7 million figure after determining, by their estimate, McDonald’s was selling approximately $1.35 million worth of coffee each day, and the award should be equivalent to two days of coffee sales for the company.

However, Liebeck didn’t actually get anywhere near that amount of money, at least as far as public record goes. The judge in the case reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, bringing the total judgement down to $640,000. Both sides appealed the decision, but their appeals were never heard as they agreed to an undisclosed settlement during mediation, thought to have been under $600,000.

The verdict and case actually kind of worked out for McDonald’s.  Public opinion over the matter almost wholly sided with McDonald’s, a rare thing for such “little guy vs. corporation” type cases. And now the whole country, and beyond, was discussing and defending McDonald’s and noting the fact that McDonald’s was a place you could get a cheap, piping hot, cup of coffee.

So did anything change as a result of the verdict? Not really. One change that did happen was that McDonald’s and other companies began putting large warning labels on their hot beverages to warn consumers that, well, they’re hot.

They did not, however, seem to reduce the temperature of their coffee, nor have other coffee vendors, with the industry standard still typically being to brew coffee at around 200 degrees Fahrenheit and sell it around 180 degrees Fahrenheit or so, give or take ten degrees. It turns out, customers actually prefer many types of coffee hot…

As such, to avoid similar frivolous lawsuits as much as possible, the solution has largely been the development of better container designs to minimize the risk of spilling the scalding liquid in the first place.

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  • John King

    Mostly a good article and factually correct. I wish Sarah Stone, the author, had refrained from repeatedly referring to this lawsuit as “frivolous”. There is a movie about the incident called “Hot Coffee” that shows photos of the burns on Mrs. Liebeck’s perineum. The injuries were not frivolous, the wrongdoing by McDonalds was not frivolous. The puzzling refusal by McDonald’s to assist with Mrs. Liebeck’s medical bills may have been the only frivolous element to this case.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @John King: Nobody said the injuries were frivolous; they were accurately described in the article and were indeed horrible. But if you slice your finger off while cutting vegetables with an ultra-sharp kitchen knife, the injury here certainly isn’t frivolous, but you suing the company for making their knives sharp certainly would be a frivolous lawsuit.

      Now, of course, if there was a fundamental flaw in the knife, like the handle fell off through no fault of your own, and that’s why you sliced your finger off, that would be legitimate. But otherwise you expect and want your kitchen knives to be sharp when you buy them, and you expect and want your coffee to be brewed at the ideal temperatures and served piping hot. (Unless you’re buying iced coffee or something. ;-)) If you spill said piping hot coffee on yourself through no fault of the company you bought it from, it’s going to injure you, maybe even very seriously, but it’s still a frivolous lawsuit as it was completely your fault, but you are now trying to get money out of someone else because… reasons.

      • Brittany

        The documentary was incredibly interesting. In it, they also cited several memos that went around McDonald’s after the first round of burn victims were paid off before Liebeck. McDonald’s had two issues that ultimately boiled down to “do nothing.” One was that the workers at the individual restaurants would be overwhelmingly busy, so few paid attention to the boiler plates that kept the coffee warm. Because these were continuous conductors of heat, the real temperature of the coffee would rise the longer they were left. This is probably what the article alludes to in the “more serious dangers” quote. Simply put, cleaning the restaurant and maintaining customer flow was more important than monitoring the coffee pot. The other factor was that the higher the temperature of the coffee, the “fresher” it tasted after a couple of hours. This meant they could keep hot pots of coffee longer without having to throw out a batch (and the potential sales with it). Next to potentially thousands more cups of coffee saved and sold, 700 burns were a drop in the pan. With these memos in mind, it was harder to see the case as “frivolous,” and it edged into neglect in favor of sales. The jury, originally against Liebeck, agreed.

        I usually like this site for its interesting and well-researched articles, and this was no exception. There was just more at work here than given. Besides, I think a lot of our attitude came down to how much we sensationalized the case into urban legend status. It became the anecdote of how much people were sue-happy, and as a result, people who did think it was frivolous tried to capitalize on what they thought were similar hurts and ruined our willingness to empathize with those who had actually been hurt.



    • James

      Please stop yelling.

  • Tony966

    Sorry but to me it was the lady’s fault. I’m sure that was not the first time she had Mac coffee and therefore knew it was HOT! Also why did she not have her grandson hold the coffee for her to add her sugar and what not? sorry for her burns but she use bad judgement.

    • B.TIGER

      No. The temperature of the coffee was served too hot. Standard temperature of served coffee should be about 175 – 155. McDonalds (via service manual) was delivering their coffee at 195 – 205. The idea was to serve the coffee at much higher temperatures so that customers holding temperatures would be 180 – 190. That’s too hot. Unless you think it’s good practice to serve liquids, 7 degrees below boiling, in cheap disposable containers? Coffee is hot, but it shouldn’t be lava hot. Read the article again. The rub was McDonalds callousness toward it’s customers. That could be you and I doubt you’d be so understanding if you used ‘bad judgement’.

  • mysterian

    It isn’t possible for hot water at any temperature to cause 3rd degree burns. The criteria for a 3rd degree burn:
    All layers of the skin is destroyed
    Extend into the subcutaneous tissues
    Areas can appear, black or white and will be dry
    Can appear leathery in texture
    Will not blanch when pressure is applied
    No pain

    the source you cited, ABA, appears to be a lobbying outfit.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @mysterian: I am certainly no expert on burns, so am happy to be proven wrong, but after doing just a quick search, third degree burns do seem to be possible from prolonged contact to hot water. Here’s another burn foundation talking about it, this one talking about five seconds to third degree burn with water temperature at 140 degrees. St. Francis Memorial Hospital also concurs. The University of Rochester Medical Center also claims third degree burns are possible from scalding liquids. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Division states you can get third degree burns from exposure to 150 degree Fahrenheit liquid for two seconds. I also found a lot of safety regulations in regards to hot water heater temperatures mentioning third degree burns at around those temperatures. I’d be interested to see some source links countering this if you’ve got them.

    • Freggio

      That description is nice. The only part that matters to me is the “all layers of the skin destroyed” part. Water can certainly do that. Personally, I would consider having a cooked hand a destroyed one, and just because it isn’t charred, doesn’t mean it isn’t thoroughly destroyed. What would you call that a 2.5th degree burn or something?

  • Les

    It stinks to me that she sued for her own action,how can the vendor be liable? a drunk crashes a car
    is it the brewer at fault? where does it end?

    • D

      The bar that sells it to the car driver in your example can be

    • rosemerry

      Ask Ralph Nader! Many companies went on producing dangerously faulty cars and paid out a few fines rather than solve the problem.You find that good? The corporations run us now; you want them to have complete control??



  • Bathazar Xavier

    interesting article and i can, somewhat, see both sides of the arguments as to whether or not this suit was warranted. having worked in the restaurant industry (my first job was actually at mcdonald’s), there are more than a few things that caused my eyebrows to raise, both in the article and by some of the comments. first is the nearly 200-degree temp at which mcdonald’s insists on maintaining their coffee. i wonder if anyone has looked into workplace injuries involving their coffee, as things in restaurants are always falling and breaking, and contrary to what one commenter said, boiling water can cause 3rd degree burns, i’ve seen it firsthand on more than one occasion. additionally, the idea that keeping coffee hotter maintains its “fresh” taste is something i’m not sure i believe or agree with, we’ve all had coffee with that “scalded” taste, from it being left on the burner too long (and i’ve never been a fan of mcdonald’s coffee anyway, “fresh” or not it tastes like it was filtered through a gym sock.

    finally, while the woman may have had some culpability in her injuries, a customer has a reasonable expectation of safety when it comes to food, how it’s prepared, and how it’s served. a great example is how ordering a steak in a premium steakhouse will usually result in you receiving a plate that is brought to the table by a server with a towel and a warning not to touch the plate. this woman got coffee, something that she had likely been drinking for an excess of 50 years, and while she expected it to be hot, scalding hot probably never crossed her mind. coffee in a diner won’t burn you but it’ll leave a nasty stain on your pants. all in all, mcdonald’s, like most corporate entities, are not in the habit of doing anything that is “the right thing to do” unless forced to. that they would not even cover her medical bills is reason enough to not defend their position if there is any semblance of doubt that they were right. yes, people do file frivolous lawsuits in hopes of hitting the legal lottery, but this obviously wasn’t the case.

  • no one

    The bottom line: McD’s is like most other corporations, they see people as cattle. It was more profitable to let people be hurt than to try and prevent it, so that is what they did. They knew exactly what it would cost them in sales and expense to do even the smallest change to prevent it and compared that to how much it cost them to simply settle claims each year and based on the money it was a no-brainer. This is basic economics in a capitalistic society. Don’t get me wrong, I am no socialist, but every major disaster is the same story. The airlines new of their vulnerability. But no airline could have afforded to try and prevent a 9/11 without going out of business due to the cost. So instead of raising concern in their industry they just did not bother, and waited for a disaster that would bring Federal funding. Our laws are so weak that the punishments don’t outweigh the gains for white collar crime. So big business will break the law until they get caught and then say “sorry… yes we will pay the million dollar fine, since we have made several billion over the last decade breaking that law”. Some might even say from a business angle it isn’t even the wrong thing to do since it keeps the stock price up.

  • Laura

    Absolutely right “no one.” McDonalds knew it was a danger, knew they would periodically pay out lawsuits because of it, but deemed it more profitable for them to ignore it. If the public doesn’t understand why this is a problem, that is sad. I’m glad people like Ms. Liebeck are brave enough to stand up and fight in these cases. The amount of mud slung at her by the public was utterly ridiculous. The public siding with McDonalds is probably why it still takes like an hour before their large coffee cools down to a bearable temperature.