Stella Liebeck, an elderly grandmother, received third-degree burns when she spilled coffee purchased at a McDonald’s drive-through. At trial, experts testified that McDonald’s coffee was too hot to be consumed at the point of purchase, was hotter than any other restaurant’s coffee or coffee brewed at home, and was so hot that third-degree burns would result within three to five seconds of coming into contact with the skin.

McDonald’s also conceded that the coffee was brewed extremely hot for commercial (profit) reasons, because most customers wanted coffee to be hot throughout their commute. After finding the company liable, the jury awarded Mrs. Liebeck two days’ worth of coffee sales at McDonald’s, an amount equivalent to $2.7 million, in punitive damages. The award, although reduced to much less than that, set off a firestorm of criticism that has not died down to this day. Hence, now why your coffee cups say “Caution Hot”.

Do you believe that it’s possible for coffee to be unreasonably dangerous? See one filmmaker’s perspective on this case.

  • What was the tort committed here?
  • Was there duty owed?
  • Do you believe that the jury’s award of $2.7 million for third-degree burns was excessive?
  • Why do you believe that such an award is necessary?
  • Can you identify any standards which have changed in the industry based upon this case?
  • What ethical issues come to mind when you think of this case?

The Misunderstood McDonald’s Hot Coffee Lawsuit

Producer: Bonnie Bertram

The long-running debate over frivolous lawsuits took shape years ago after McDonald’s coffee spilled into a woman’s lap and she was awarded millions in damages. Her complaint sounded frivolous. But the facts told another story.

In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck ordered coffee at a McDonald’s drive-through in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She spilled the coffee, was burned, and a year later, sued McDonald’s. The jury awarded her $2.9 million dollars.

Jurors heard testimony for a week and deliberated for hours. They learned that she was burned over 16% of her body, and had third degree burns on her groin. They also learned that McDonald’s had received nearly 700 complaints about hot coffee burns in the almost 10 years before Stella’s trial.

But those details went mostly unreported, and the public made a quicker judgment. Stella became a symbol for frivolous lawsuits and fodder for talk show hosts, late night comedians, sitcom writers, and even political pundits. The headlines, referring to an elderly grandmother spilling coffee from McDonald’s and winning millions of dollars, practically wrote themselves. But cleverness came at the expense of context, and despite some more detailed reports that offered greater context and a new perspective, such as the documentary Hot Coffee, most people still don’t know the extent of Liebeck’s injuries.

Wake Forest University Professor John Llewellyn calls Liebeck’s lawsuit the most misunderstood story in America. Order your answer here

Stella Liebeck, an elderly grandmother

Stella Liebeck, an elderly grandmother