The Hidden Truths of the McDonald’s Coffee Lawsuit

The McDonald’s coffee lawsuit is often used as an example of “sue happy” Americans and everything that is wrong with our civil court system. After all, if someone can successfully sue a restaurant for millions of dollars after they spill coffee (that they know is hot) in their lap, perhaps we should all be a bit worried.

As with a lot of urban legends though, there is a bit more to this story than is often told – and some common misconceptions continue more than 20 years later.

This case developed after 79-year-old Stella Liebeck was burned by spilling a cup of coffee from an Albuquerque, New Mexico McDonald’s restaurant in her lap. The coffee, which was approximately 180 − 190 F, severely burned the woman and resulted in her being hospitalized for eight days and partially disabled for two years.
The McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit was even prominently featured in an HBO film aptly named Hot Coffee.

How hot is too hot?

McDonald’s required their restaurants to brew and keep coffee heated at 180 − 190 F. Never mind that coffee will develop a burned taste if it is kept heated to this temperature for more than a few minutes.

Serving coffee at 180 F or more may not sound extreme, but that temperature is hot enough to cause severe burns almost instantly.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, adults can suffer third degree burns in only two seconds when exposed to water that has been heated to 150 F, but 130 F water will usually not cause a third degree burn for thirty seconds.

Deja vu

Stella Liebeck was not the first to sue McDonald’s over the temperature of the coffee. McDonald’s, as it would become known during discovery for the lawsuit, was well aware of the dangers of serving coffee at this temperature, and had already had more than 700 claims filed against it for the same problem over the past decade.

It also came out during discovery for this lawsuit that McDonald’s had paid out half a million dollars to settle previous coffee burn claims. Interestingly, a McDonald’s quality assurance manager even testified that coffee served at 185 F would scald a person’s mouth and throat.

Despite this history, McDonald’s refused to serve coffee at a lower temperature or to provide more adequate warning of the temperature and burn risk. Following Stella’s successful lawsuit, McDonald’s did improve the warnings about the temperature of its coffee.

Is that really true?

One of the interesting things about the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit is the number of misconceptions about the story that continue to this day:

  1. Stella was driving at the time she spilled scalding coffee in her lap. In fact, she was in her grandson’s car – a car without cup holders – and he had stopped to allow her to add cream and sugar to the coffee when it spilled.
  2. Stella suffered only superficial burns as a result of spilling the hot coffee. In fact, she suffered third degree burns (the most severe grade) over six percent of her body, and less-severe burns over an additional sixteen percent of her body.
  3. The lawsuit was frivolous and greedy. In fact, Stella offered to settle with McDonald’s for a mere $20,000 to cover her actual and anticipated medical expenses. It was McDonald’s counter offer of $800 that prompted her to hire an attorney to file suit. The jury awarded Stella nearly $3 million, though that amount was reduced in subsequent settlement negotiations.

What do you think?

Should McDonald’s have been found mostly responsible in the hot coffee lawsuit? Should businesses be held responsible when they know people are being hurt by their product, or is the individual consumer responsible? Let us know in the comments!




Robert Witham
Robert Witham
A freelance writer and journalist, I am also a wandering minimalist. I never sit still for too long in one place. When I am not writing I can be found reading, enjoying a good cup of coffee, hiking, fishing, installing a new OS on my laptop, or building a website.