The Truth About That McDonald’s Hot Coffee Lawsuit

Ken AshfordCourts/Law1 Comment

It came up in a conversation I had the other day: the lady who sued McDonald's because her coffee was too hot.  It's always the example tossed out by people whenever there is a discussion about frivilous lawsuits.

Now, there are frivilous lawsuits filed everday.  But the McDonald's Hot Coffee Lawsuit is not a very good example.

Here's what most people know about the case:
  1. Women gets McDonald's coffee from drive-thru window
  2. She spills it on herself; OW, it burns! 
  3. She sues McDonalds 
  4. She wins at trial  

Ok.  That's an accurate summary of the facts.  But it's woefully incomplete.

The thing people need to focus on is #4.  She won.  That should be a clue that there's more than what meets the eye.  Why did she win?  Was the jury of twelve people comprised of total idiots?  Was the judge a moron? 

In reality, when the jury was selected, all they knew before the trial was #1, #2, and #3.  To many of them at the time, it seemed like a pretty straightforward case in McDonald's favor.  So what happened between jury selection and verdict time?  

Well, the evidence came out.  ALL the evidence.

Consider: The victim — Mrs. Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico (age 79) — did not do anything unusual to contribute to her injuries.  She was a passenger in her grandson's car.  She ordered the coffee.  It came in a styrofoam cup.  She placed it between her legs, so she could open the lid and put in cream and sugar.  The coffee spilled.

Oh, her injuries?  Well, the coffee seeped through her sweatpants.  A vascular surgeon determined that Liebeck suffered full thickness burns (or third-degree burns) over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting. Liebeck also underwent debridement treatments.  

Put bluntly, the coffee literally burned a grandmother's genitals off….. through her clothes.

So, by now you're wondering one of two things:  Either Mrs. Liebeck's genitalia/legs/etc were made of tissue paper…. or maybe, just maybe, something was unusual about the coffee.  

And now we get to the heart of the matter — the thing most people aren't aware of.  

The McDonald's coffee wasn't merely "hot"; it was scalding.

McDonalds (at that time) served its coffee 50-60 degrees hotter than that of normal coffee served in your house or breakroom.  Its temperatures ranged as high as 190 degrees.  

Now, the thing about liquids is, if you lower the temperature, the effect of burns reduces exponentially.  In other words, liquids at 180 degrees would give full thickness burns to human skin in two to seven seconds.  But liquids at 155 degrees? Not nearly as bad.

In other words, if Mrs. Liebeck's coffee was 155 degrees — still much hotter than home or office coffee (and about the temperature that other fast food places serve coffee) — and she had spilled it?  Yeah, it would have hurt.  Anything over 140 degrees is a burn hazard.  But it wouldn't have gone through her sweatpants and burned off her hoo-ha.

Another important point: this wasn't a one-time event.  This wasn't a McDonald's worker who strayed from McDonald's coffee prep techniques.  No.  McDonald's coffee was served at 180-190 degrees as a matter of policy.  

So, while reasonable people would expect hot coffee (and McD's, at that time, did have a "hot" warning on the coffee cups), they certainly weren't expecting coffee that hot.  And, reasonably, McDonalds owed a duty to its patrons to warn them — not of the obvious ("the coffee will be hot") — but of the not-obvious ("no, we mean much much hotter than you would think, people").

McDonald's food quality people testified that they knew the coffee was being served at scalding temperatures.  They knew that it was being served at temperatures higher than other fast food places and coffee shops.  It was a planned, discussed, and implemented executive decision to do that.

And they knew that many of their customers probably didn't realize that their coffee was going to be that much hotter.  But they didn't give thought to repercussions.

Even when people started complaining that the coffee was burning their mouths, they didn't do anything.

So, in that light, the McDonald's Hot Coffee Lawsuit wasn't frivilous.  Yes, everybody knows that coffee from a fast-food place will be hot.  But I wonder how many people (back in 1992, when this happened) knew that McDonald's coffee was that much hotter, or knew the consequences of it being that much hotter?  Probably not many.  But McDonald's knew, and certainly had an obligation — legal, if not moral — to warn its customers.  

I'm not the slightest bit put off that Mrs. Liebeck sued.  She had a legitimate — not "frivilous" — complaint.

And I'm not surprised the jurors found in the her favor.

(Needless to say, McDonald's coffee, while still very hot, isn't served at 190 degrees anymore)