McDonald's coffee case

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Stella Liebeck v. McDonald's Corporation, a.k.a. the "McDonald's coffee case", is a well-known court case in the United States. The brief summary that is often retold is similar to this: In February, 1992, Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, ordered coffee from the drive-thru of a local McDonald's restaurant, which she then spilled on her lap. The hot coffee burned her, and she subsequently sued McDonald's. In 1994, the jury awarded her 2.9 million dollars US in damages. Based on this summary, the case has become emblematic of frivolous and outrageous lawsuits for many people, and is often used as an example of the need for tort reform in the United States legal system. The summary, however, omits a large amount of relevant information, including the fact that either an appeals court or the original trial judge reduced the award to a total of $640,000. Because the case was not officially reported by the system, the exact circumstances of how the original judgment was reduced and who reduced it are not clear.

The person driving the vehicle was Liebeck's grandson Chris, who had parked the car so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. She placed the coffee cup between her knees and attempted to remove the lid. In the process, she spilled the entire cup of coffee on her lap. Liebeck was wearing sweatpants; they absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin. She was taken to the hospital, where it was determined that she had suffered third-degree burns over six percent of her skin. She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent skin grafting. Two years of treatment followed. Liebeck sought to settle with McDonald's for $20,000 to cover her medical costs, but the company offered $800. When McDonald's refused to raise their offer, Liebeck filed suit.

During the case it was discovered that McDonald's required franchises to serve coffee at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit (82-88 degrees Celsius). At that temperature, the coffee would cause a third-degree burn in two to seven seconds. Testimony by witnesses for McDonald's revealed that:

  • consumers were not aware the coffee was so hot that there was a risk of serious burns
  • McDonald's did not warn customers of this risk
  • they could offer no explanation as to why there was no warning
  • McDonald's did not intend to reduce the heat of its coffee

However, the National Coffee Association of USA recommends that coffee be brewed at 195-205 degrees Fahrenheit and, if not drunk immediately, should be maintained at a temperature of 180-190 for optimal flavor. [1] (

Documents obtained from McDonald's also showed that from 1982 to 1992, more than 700 people were burned by McDonald's coffee with varying degrees of severity. These incidents resulted in many other legal claims. (To put this into context, this represents one injury per 24 million cups of coffee sold by McDonald's.)

The jury found that McDonald's was 80% responsible for the incident, while Liebeck was 20% at fault. They awarded her $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. However, the judge reduced this amount to $480,000; thus Liebeck was awarded $640,000 in total. However, the amount she actually received from McDonald's is unknown. Rather than appealing the decision, McDonald's entered into secret negotiations with Liebeck and came to a settlement.

The McDonald's coffee case is widely known, and is often referred to as the case where the old lady spilled coffee on herself, sued McDonald's and received millions of dollars. It has spawned a commonly forwarded email entitled "The Stella Awards", which consists of fabricated lawsuits that are claimed to be true. This, in turn, provided the inspiration for the True Stella Awards, a mailing list by Randy Cassingham which provides reports and commentary on actual cases within the American court system.

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