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Liebeck v. McDonald’s: Excessive Windfall for a Clumsy Customer or Warning to Companies to Make Customer Safety a Priority

David B. Datny

David B. Datny

Personal Injury Attorney in South Florida

mcdonalds hot coffee lawsuit

In 1994, the whole country was buzzing over the generous award to a McDonald’s customer “who spilled hot coffee on herself,” as one person put it. Many people viewed the case as a monument to consumer greed. Others viewed it as propaganda for tort reform. I believe this case is largely misunderstood and did not represent an undeserved windfall for a careless customer, but rather a signal to the restaurant industry that customer safety must be taken into account.

Here is what happened.  In 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old grandmother, purchased a cup of coffee from a drive-through McDonald’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her son, who was driving, parked the car in the parking lot to give his mother a chance to add cream and sugar to her beverage. In the process of removing the lid, Stella’s cup tipped over, spilling coffee on her lap, causing her to suffer third degree burns to her pelvic area and thighs. The burns required skin grafting and hospitalization for eight days. The burns covered 16 percent of her body and the skin was burned away to the layers of muscle and fatty tissue. The injuries took her two years to recover. 

Subsequently, Stella offered to settle the case for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses and lost income, but McDonald’s wouldn’t budge from its settlement offer of $800, so Stella sued McDonald’s for negligence for serving coffee at a dangerously high temperature (180-190◦). Notably, these temperatures exceed the Florida allowable hot water temperature for household use by 60 degrees!  The law requires business establishments to maintain their premises and products to be safe or to warn customers of any potential hazard, which McDonald’s clearly failed to do in the case of Stella. 

During the litigation that ensued, it was revealed during the previous 10 years, McDonald’s had received more than 700 complaints from customers who were burned from drinking their hot coffee, yet McDonald’s refused to lower the temperature at which they served coffee. It was also revealed that McDonald’s took in $1.3 million dollars a day from the sale of hot coffee. The jury awarded her compensatory damages for her medical expenses, reduced somewhat by finding the plaintiff partially at fault, and $2.7 million in punitive damages, based on two days’ worth of revenue from coffee sales. The judge reduced the punitive damages award by 80 percent, and rather than go through what would likely have been years of appeals, the parties settled the lawsuit for a confidential lower amount and McDonald’s agreed to lower the temperature of its coffee. Today, most coffee shops serve coffee at lower temperatures and place a warning on their cups, which is thanks to this case and Stella Liebeck.

During the trial, the jury heard expert testimony that McDonald’s operations manual required the company to maintain its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit, which if spilled, causes third-degree burns in three to seven seconds. McDonald’s again admitted it had known about the risk of serious burns from its scalding hot coffee for more than 10 years, through numerous claims and lawsuits, but McDonald’ failed to inform customers or warn them of the risks it knew. McDonald’s admittedly kept customers in the dark and had no legitimate explanation for its failure to do so.  However, during the trial it was revealed that by serving coffee at such high temperatures, it takes a customer a long time to finish their drink, which means fewer free refills. The jury took McDonald’s calculated and callous disregard for the welfare of its customers into account when deliberating on the award for damages including punitives.

In this regard, the magnitude of the punitive damage award sent a clear message to the food service industry: Make Customer Safety a Priority! Lowering the temperature to a safer level and putting warnings on hot beverage cups are some of the positive outcomes from this case that resulted in overall safer conditions in restaurants and fewer subsequent customer injuries, which often gets overshadowed by detractors who focus on the amount of the award, which is almost always presented out of context. Not only McDonald’s, but other shops doing a brisk coffee business such as Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks, have heeded the lesson of this case and placed warnings on their coffee cups as well thanks to Stella Liebeck. 

In sum, we believe this landmark case has made us all a little safer. However, burns and injuries from spilled food and drink still happen when businesses fail to act in a reasonable manner or put profits over customer safety. If you or a loved one have been hurt by scalding coffee or other drink or food prepared at McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, etc., please do not hesitate to call The Datny Law Firm and our Boca Raton Personal Injury Lawyer for a FREE consultation. We proudly represent Clients injured in Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Wellington, Winter Park and throughout the State of Florida. 

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