Friday, June 25, 2010

The Truth About the McDonaald's Coffee Burn Case

Friends, as a courtroom trial lawyer for 43 years, juries became less and less friendly as the insurance companies propaganda became more and more effective. For example the celebrated lie promulgated by Travelers (I think it was). They said they had to settle a case for a huge amount for a man who tried to cut his hedge with a lawnmower and injured himself. This was all over the news. This and other constant bombardment by PR smeared lawyers and lawsuits with propaganda constantly. I felt like I was in a war, for I had to confront juries with their arms folded with that look on faces that said, "come on scumbag, lets hear what lies you are going to tell us."

This culminated in the McDonald's case, which I have cited below from Wikipedia. There is a part of a trial called "voir dire," in French meaning to see and to hear, wherein the lawyer asks prospective jurors in the "selection" process, how they feel about things.

"Who has heard of the McDonald's coffee burn case?" Every hand went in the air. "Mr. Smith, what do you think about that?" Mr. Smith would say it was outrageous. So would Mr. Jones, Mrs. Thibodaux, and Mrs. Boudreaux. I would have to take another tack, and ask them if they could erase that case from the book I was going to read from and start with a clean white bright page with nothing written on it, no McDonald's case in the pages, and consider it free and clear of any other case? Some would say yes, and some say no. I would strike the no's, and there was always some vigilante who said yes and as a sleeper he would be negatively influential.

So the McDonald's case was murder for me as a trial lawyer for the remaining years I was in the business as a courtroom plaintiff lawyer. Here is what really happened, as per Wikipedia. (BTW, the anatomical part that was scalded was a very personal part to Mrs. Liebeck, rendering it scarred and traumatically affected for her love life.)

Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants also known as the "McDonald's coffee case," is a 1994 product liability lawsuit that became a flashpoint in the debate in the U.S. over tort reform after a jury awarded $2.86 million to a woman who scalded herself with hot coffee she purchased from fast food restaurant McDonald's. The trial judge reduced the total award to $640,000, and the parties settled for a confidential amount before an appeal was decided. The case entered popular lore as an example of frivolous litigation; ABC News called the case “the poster child of excessive lawsuits.

Liebeck's attorneys argued that McDonald's coffee was "defective", claiming that it was too hot and more likely to cause serious injury than coffee served at any other place. Moreover, McDonald's had refused several prior opportunities to settle for less than the $640,000 ultimately awarded. Reformers defend the popular understanding of the case as materially accurate, note that the vast majority of judges who consider similar cases dismiss them before they get to a jury,and argue that McDonald's refusal to offer more than a nuisance settlement reflects the meritless nature of the suit rather than any wrongdoing


On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, ordered a 49¢ cup of coffee from the drive-through window of a local McDonald's restaurant. Liebeck was in the passenger's seat of her Ford Probe, and her grandson Chris parked the car so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. She placed the coffee cup between her knees and pulled the far side of the lid toward her to remove it. In the process, she spilled the entire cup of coffee on her lap. Liebeck was wearing cotton sweatpants; they absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin as she sat in the puddle of hot liquid for over 90 seconds, scalding her thighs, buttocks, and groin. Liebeck was taken to the hospital, where it was determined that she had suffered third-degree burns on six percent of her skin and lesser burns over sixteen percent. She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent skin grafting. During this period, Liebeck lost 20 pounds (nearly 20% of her body weight), reducing her down to 83 pounds. Two years of medical treatment followed.

Settlement offers

Liebeck sought to settle with McDonald's for US $20,000 to cover her medical costs, which were $11,000, but the company offered only $800. When McDonald's refused to raise its offer, Liebeck retained Texas attorney Reed Morgan. Morgan filed suit in a New Mexico District Court accusing McDonald's of "gross negligence" for selling coffee that was "unreasonably dangerous" and "defectively manufactured". McDonald's refused Morgan's offer to settle for $90,000 Morgan offered to settle for $300,000, and a mediator suggested $225,000 just before trial, but McDonald's refused these final pre-trial attempts to settle.


The trial took place from August 8–17, 1994, before Judge Robert H. Scott.[13] During the case, Liebeck's attorneys discovered that McDonald's required franchises to serve coffee at 180–190 °F (82–88 °C). At that temperature, the coffee would cause a third-degree burn in two to seven seconds. Liebeck's attorney argued that coffee should never be served hotter than 140 °F (60 °C), and that a number of other establishments served coffee at a substantially lower temperature than McDonald's. Liebeck's lawyers presented the jury with evidence that 180 °F (82 °C) coffee like that McDonald’s served may produce third-degree burns (where skin grafting is necessary) in about 12 to 15 seconds. Lowering the temperature to 160 °F (71 °C) would increase the time for the coffee to produce such a burn to 20 seconds. (A British court later rejected this argument as scientifically false. Liebeck's attorneys argued that these extra seconds could provide adequate time to remove the coffee from exposed skin, thereby preventing many burns. McDonald's claimed that the reason for serving such hot coffee in its drive-through windows was that those who purchased the coffee typically were commuters who wanted to drive a distance with the coffee; the high initial temperature would keep the coffee hot during the trip. However, this claim contradicts the company's own research that showed customers actually intend to consume the coffee while driving to their destination.

Other documents obtained from McDonald's showed that from 1982 to 1992 the company had received more than 700 reports of people burned by McDonald's coffee to varying degrees of severity, and had settled claims arising from scalding injuries for more than $500,000.[4] McDonald's quality control manager, Christopher Appleton, testified that this number of injuries was insufficient to cause the company to evaluate its practices. He argued that all foods hotter than 130 °F (54 °C) constituted a burn hazard, and that restaurants had more pressing dangers to warn about. The plaintiffs argued that Appleton conceded that McDonald's coffee would burn the mouth and throat if consumed when served.[16]

A twelve-person jury reached its verdict on August 18, 1994. Applying the principles of comparative negligence, the jury found that McDonald's was 80% responsible for the incident and Liebeck was 20% at fault. Though there was a warning on the coffee cup, the jury decided that the warning was neither large enough nor sufficient. They awarded Liebeck US$200,000 in compensatory damages, which was then reduced by 20% to $160,000. In addition, they awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages. The jurors apparently arrived at this figure from Morgan's suggestion to penalize McDonald's for one or two days' worth of coffee revenues, which were about $1.35 million per day. The judge reduced punitive damages to $480,000, three times the compensatory amount, for a total of $640,000. The decision was appealed by both McDonald's and Liebeck in December 1994, but the parties settled out of court for an undisclosed amount less than $600,000.


  1. As Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story...

    I found this fascinating. Hearing the mainstream media report on it, I was inclined to say give me a break. But reading the whole story gives one a whole different perspective. Thanks for sharing the rest of the story.

    All the best,


  2. When someone hands me coffee in a car I know it is hot and take adequate precautions. Placed it between her knees? I don't even pick up a cup by the lid because of the danger and this woman puts it between her knees? Furthermore if I get burned my old man hand moves QUICKLY. Sat in it for 90 seconds? This lawsuit award CONTINUES to be an indication of serious problems in our society. Total lack of personal responsibility and accountability. It is not my fault so someone should have to pay. I shouldn’t have to work. You should have to give me some of your money. You are a big company and have a lot of money, you should have to pay for ______, it is my right and society should have to provide ____ for me. See a trend?