Learn what really happened — and how personal injury lawsuits can protect us all

The Truth Behind the Hot Coffee Lawsuit

Many people have opinions about so-called frivolous lawsuits — and when they talk about these lawsuits, the first one that they typically mention is the McDonald’s “hot coffee” lawsuit. They will typically claim that this is an example of just how ridiculous personal injury lawsuits have gotten — that somebody can sue because coffee is hot. But the facts of the case were a lot more serious than that — and so were the injuries. In reality, the lawsuit against McDonald’s was anything but frivolous. Instead, it is the perfect example of how personal injury lawsuits protect all of us.

The hot coffee lawsuit began when a 79 year old woman named Stella Liebeck went through the drive-through at McDonald’s with her grandson. Mrs. Liebeck ordered coffee and waited until her grandson — the driver — pulled over into a parking spot to place the coffee cup between her legs, opened the lid, and added cream and sugar. The hot coffee spilled, causing third-degree burns over 16% of Mrs. Liebeck’s body, including her inner thighs, buttocks, genitals, and groin. Her burns were so severe that she had to be hospitalized for 8 days and required skin grafts and whirlpool treatment for wound debridement. She suffered scarring and disability for more than two years. These medical treatments cost tens of thousands of dollars. Her injuries resulted in permanent disfigurement, severe pain, and disability for many months, and for some of her injuries, for years. At trial, Mrs. Liebeck’s doctor testified that her injury was one of the worst scald burns that he had ever treated.

The reason that Mrs. Liebeck’s burns were so serious was because the coffee in question wasn’t just hot — it was scalding. It was between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit — 30 to 40 degrees higher than the average temperature at other restaurants. Liquids at this temperature are capable of causing third degree burns in just 3 to 7 seconds. In fact, McDonald’s had received more than 700 complaints about injuries from their scalding coffee and had even paid settlements — but did not change the temperature of their coffee.

Ultimately, the case went to trial, where the jury awarded Mrs. Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages for her injuries and $2.7 million in punitive damages. The jury was reportedly upset about McDonald’s unwillingness to change its policies after learning of people being injured by its hot coffee, and of its disregard for those injuries. Prior to trial, Mrs. Liebeck had offered to settle the case for $20,000 to cover her medical treatment and her daughter’s lost income in caring for her. The parties eventually reached a confidential settlement after a judge reduced the jury’s award to $160,000 in compensatory damages and $480,000 in punitive damages.

The real story behind the “hot coffee” lawsuit shows that the popular stories behind many personal injury cases simply are not true — and that personal injury lawsuits actually help to protect all Americans from dangerous and harmful products. In the hot coffee case, sturdier cups that reduced the possibility of spills and lower coffee temperatures were two outcomes of the lawsuit — which are both advantageous to all consumers.

If you have been injured in an accident or by a dangerous or defective product, the Law Offices of Larry H. Parker is here to help. Contact us today at 800-333-0000 or to schedule a free initial consultation. We never charge a fee unless we get money for you!

📞 Call 800-333-0000 Today!