Follow Jackie Linkedin Facebook
Legal Issues
Sep 27, 2023

Another Hot Lawsuit: McDonald’s Coffee

Sponsored Content provided by Jackie Houser - Personal Injury Attorney & Business Owner, Flexner Houser Injury Law

McDonald’s hot coffee strikes again! Decades after the famous personal injury lawsuit against McDonald’s for their scalding coffee, another similar lawsuit is in the news. But is it déjà vu or a case of bad luck?

In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck was severely burned by McDonald’s coffee that she spilled in her lap. Stella was a passenger in her grandson’s car, and she ordered a cup of coffee through McDonald’s drive-thru. Her grandson then parked the car so Stella could add cream and sugar. Stella removed the lid and supported the coffee cup between her knees. The cup of coffee spilled into the seat, soaking her sweatpants with the scalding liquid.

The coffee was dangerously hot—hot enough to cause third-degree burns in just three seconds—even through her clothes. The third-degree burns covered 16 percent of her body, including her inner thighs and genitals. The skin was burned away to the layers of muscle and fatty tissue. The injuries resulted in eight days of hospitalization, multiple skin grafts, and a two-year recovery.

Stella tried to settle the case for $20,000, but McDonald’s countered with their highest offer landing at $800. This did not even cover her medical expenses! 

During the trial, the jurors saw graphic photos of Stella’s burns and heard experts testify about how hot coffee should be. It was revealed that McDonald’s coffee was 30 to 40 degrees hotter than coffee served by other companies. Evidence was also disclosed that 700 other people (including children) had been burned before by McDonald’s coffee; and, even though the company knew its coffee was capable of causing serious burns—and was, in fact, doing so—McDonald’s decided that the number of burns were not significant when compared to the billions of cups served annually (and the billions of dollars it made on those sales).

In the end, the jurors awarded Stella $200,000 in compensatory damages for her pain, suffering, and medical costs, but those damages were reduced to $160,000 because the jury found her 20 percent responsible. (In a comparative negligence jurisdiction, the jury assigns the degree of fault of each part and the compensatory damages are reduced based on the plaintiff’s measure of fault.)  More importantly, the jury awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages (which was the equivalent of two days of McDonald’s revenue from coffee sales). The trial judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, while noting that McDonald’s behavior had been “willful, wanton, and reckless.” The parties later reached a confidential settlement. 

How did McDonald’s change their business model after this verdict?  The answer can be surprising. McDonald’s coffee is still the hottest coffee in the fast food industry resting between 174 to 195 degrees Fahrenheit (remember, water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit). McDonald’s solutions were to add warnings about the hot liquid in the coffee cup container, they redesigned their cups and lids to be thicker and sturdier, and they added a cup sleeve for extra protection to the customer’s hand.  

These changes did not solve the problem as other claims were filed. The most recent claim is from San Francisco where 85-year-old Mable Childress suffered first and second degree burns after being handed a cup of McDonald’s coffee with a lid not properly secured. When she tried to take a sip of her coffee, the lid came off and spilled onto her legs, groin, and stomach. 

Childress also claims that she tried to speak to a manager to report the incident immediately, but three employees “refused to help her.” After an hour spent with no progress made, she left and went straight to the emergency room. Childress claims the incident has left her with scarring, ongoing physical and emotional pain, and medical expenses. Mable’s lawsuit does not focus on the temperature of the coffee (yet), but rather on the negligence of its employees in handling the coffee.

Like Stella’s case, it will be interesting to see how much responsibility is placed on Mable to confirm that the coffee lid was secured before drinking from the cup. Meanwhile, legal news geeks (like me) will enjoy the dialogue about the comparative negligence issues in this second round of hot coffee cases. 

Thanks, McDonald’s. I’m Lovin’ It! 
CNN Article: McDonald’s once again sued after customer burns herself on hot coffee 
American Museum of Tort Law: Liebeck v. McDonald’s
Washington Post Article: McDonald’s is being sued over a hot coffee spill — again
Grunge Article: What Happened After The McDonald's Hot Coffee Lawsuit?

Ico insights


Screenshot2022 01 06at338 162234623

Conversations to Contracts Driving Productivity to the Local Workforce

Girard Newkirk - Genesis Block
Untitleddesign2 9202334730

New Scotts Hill Medical Center to be a One-Stop Destination for Many Health Care Needs

Novant Health - New Hanover Regional Medical Center Novant Health

Unlocking Potential: The Power of Business Peer Groups

John Monahan - Vistage

Trending News

Bank, Nonprofit Look To Lease Skyline Center Space From City

Emma Dill - Feb 19, 2024

Homebuilders Association Adds Taylor As Director Of Business Development

Staff Reports - Feb 20, 2024

Insurance Company Leases Space In Upcoming Midtown Office Building

Cece Nunn - Feb 20, 2024

Coffee Shop, Bar Takes Flight In Downtown Wilmington

Laura Moore - Feb 21, 2024

Local Women's Impact Network Announces Board Officers, Members

Staff Reports - Feb 20, 2024

In The Current Issue

INFO JUNKIE: Brooke Rudd-Gaglie

Brooke Rudd-Gaglie, vice president, director and practicing broker at Margaret Rudd & Associates Realtors, shares her tech and info picks....

MADE: IKA Works Inc. Equips Labs

IKA Works Inc. manufactures products used by universities, biotech companies and more....

State Real Estate Leader Weighs In

"Forecasts from leading economists suggest a downward adjustment in interest rates by the middle of the year, a development that could notab...

Book On Business

The 2024 WilmingtonBiz: Book on Business is an annual publication showcasing the Wilmington region as a center of business.

Order Your Copy Today!



2023 Power Breakfast: Major Developments