McDonald’s Hot Coffee Lawsuit – The Real Facts

Hot coffee in a cupThe McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit created a lot of hype, especially by John Stossel at ABC News. No one is in favor of frivolous cases and outlandish results but it is important to understand some key facts that were NOT reported in the stories about the case.

McDonald’s coffee was not only hot, it was scalding – capable of almost instantaneous destruction of skin, flesh, and muscle.  THEY KNEW IT AND DID NOTHING ABOUT IT!

Why does the media report only part of the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit story? Without the reader becoming emotional, the story is boring. In order to make the story more interesting and increase their audience, the media looks to excite their readers or make them angry. Lately, this has become known as Fake News. But now there’s a movie Hot Coffee showing the real truth!

Here’s the real true story of the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit, untold by the media:

How Did McDonald’s Hot Coffee Burn Stella Liebeck?

Stella Liebeck, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was a passenger in a car when she was severely burned by McDonald’s coffee in February 1992. Liebeck, 79 at the time, ordered coffee that was served in a styrofoam cup at the drive-through window of a McDonald’s. 

After receiving the order, the driver pulled his car forward and stopped so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Critics of civil justice, often imply that Liebeck was driving the car or that the vehicle was in motion when she spilled the coffee, however, NEITHER IS TRUE. 

THE CAR WAS STOPPED when Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup. As she removed the lid, the entire contents of the cup spilled into her lap.  This could have happened to any McDonald’s customer who picked up coffee at the drive-in window and parked on the side.

The Injury

The sweatpants Liebeck was wearing absorbed the coffee and held it next to her skin.

A vascular surgeon determined that Liebeck suffered full thickness burns (third-degree burns) over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, genital and groin areas. She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting.

The pictures of her burn injury are too gruesome to display here but photos can be found with a Google search.

How the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case Got Started

McDonald’s refused to pay the 79-year-old woman’s initial medical expenses of $11,000. McDonald’s actually countered with an offer of $800. They also refused to turn down the heat on their coffee.

Stella Liebeck was a Republican who had never filed a lawsuit in her life but was forced to hire a personal injury lawyer when she was left with $20,000 of unpaid medical bills. The McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit was started.

Liebeck sought to settle her claim for only $20,000, but McDonald’s still refused. A mediator later recommended that the parties settle for $225,000. Again, McDonald’s refused and the case went to trial.

McDonald’s Testimony and Other Evidence at the Trial

McDonald’s representatives lied to the court and jury about the existence of other claims, but documents were admitted into evidence showing that they knew of more than 700 claims by adults and children burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some claims involved third-degree burns substantially similar to Liebecks. This history documented McDonald’s knowledge about the extent and nature of the intentionally created burn hazard.

McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that the company actively enforced a requirement that coffee be held in the pot at 185 degrees, plus or minus five degrees. He also testified that a burn hazard exists with any food substance served at 140 degrees or above and that McDonald’s coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into styrofoam cups, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat.

Although the quality assurance manager admitted that burns would occur, he testified that McDonald’s had no intention of reducing the “holding temperature” of its coffee. McDonald’s also said that based on a consultants advice, it held its coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain optimum taste. The quality assurance manager admitted that he had not evaluated the safety ramifications at this temperature.

McDonald’s even ignored a request from the Shriner’s Burn Institute in Cincinnati to turn down the temperature of its coffee. 

McDonald’s also claimed that customers buy coffee on their way to work or home, intending to consume it there, however, McDonald’s own research showed that customers intend to consume the coffee immediately while driving. 

McDonald’s also argued that consumers know coffee is hot and that its customers want it that way. But McDonald’s admitted its customers were unaware that they could suffer third-degree burns from coffee that hot and that a statement on the side of the cup was not a “warning” but a “reminder” since the location of the writing would not warn customers of the hazard.

Stella Liebeck’s Expert’s Testimony

Plaintiff’s expert, a scholar in thermodynamics applied to human skin burns, testified that liquids, at 180 degrees, will cause a full thickness (third-degree burns) burn to human skin in two to seven seconds.

Other testimony showed that as the temperature decreases toward 155 degrees, the extent of the burn relative to that temperature decreases exponentially. Thus, if Liebeck’s spill had involved coffee at 155 degrees, the liquid would have cooled and given her time to avoid a serious burn.

Other restaurants sell coffee at substantially lower temperatures, and coffee served at home is generally 135 to 140 degrees.

Water Temperature | Length of Time to Receive Severe Burn

156°  |  1 second
149°  |  2 seconds
140°  |  5 seconds
133°  |  15 seconds
127°  |  60 seconds
124°  |  3 minutes

At the time of the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit, McDonald’s coffee was served at approximately 185° – almost 30° hotter than necessary to cause a serious burn in one second.

This chart shows the difference between a first-degree, second-degree, and third-degree burn

burn degree chart showing the time it takes for hot coffee to cause a burn

How Much Did the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Jury Award?

The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages but reduced this amount to $160,000 because they found her 20 percent at fault for spilling the coffee (not because she was driving a car).

The jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which equaled about two days of profits from McDonald’s coffee sales. 

How Much Did Stella Liebeck Really Get after the Jury Verdict Was Reduced?

What’s the outcome? It has been reported that Stella Liebeck received less than $600,000. The judge reduced the amount to $640,000, but McDonald’s threatened to file an appeal and the case was settled for less than the reduced verdict.

Breakdown of the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit verdict:

  • The trial court reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, even though the judge called McDonald’s conduct reckless, callous and willful. 
  • Added to that amount was $160,000 for pain-and-suffering and medical expenses, so Stella Liebeck should have received $640,000.
  • From that amount, attorney’s fees and case expenses are deducted. Assuming a 1/3 attorney’s fee, she should receive $426,666 less case expenses which could have easily been $30,000-$40,000. If case expenses were $30,000, she should have received $396,666.

BUT the case was settled for even less than $640,000. No one will ever really know how much she received because the parties eventually entered into a secret settlement which has never been revealed to the public. This is despite the fact that it was a public case, litigated in public and subjected to extensive media reporting. Such secret settlements, after public trials, should not be permitted.

Did the Court System Work As It Should Have in the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case?

After the trial, it was found that the temperature of coffee at the local Albuquerque McDonald’s had dropped to a relatively safe 158 degrees Fahrenheit. This proves that lawsuits are the only effective mechanism which forces companies to produce safe products. 

The real story shows that the court system works. The jury reduced the verdict for the percentage of negligence attributable to the plaintiff. The jury felt that McDonald’s actions were so disgusting and heinous that they awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages to punish McDonald’s in an effort to stop this kind of callousness. The judge felt that this was too much and reduced McDonald’s punishment to only $480,000. 

Reductions of jury awards is a very little known fact. Judges have the power to reduce a jury award and they do, frequently. Judges reduce awards whenever they feel the jury awarded too much, however, the media never, never reports the reduced awards. They only report the original verdict because, after all, the headline $480,000 punitive award to McDonald’s burn victim doesn’t sell as well as $2.7 million punitive award to McDonald’s burn victim! This is misleading hype journalism, of which John Stossel is also guilty.

John Stossel and most other reporters frequently reran the McDonald’s Coffee Case story but have never reported the fact that: 

  1. Liebeck was a passenger; 
  2. Liebeck’s car was stopped, not moving; and
  3. The verdict was substantially reduced;
  4. The verdict was settled for less than the reduced amount.

John Stossel produced a story on ABC News called “HYPE” in which he accused reporters of creating hype to get attention, but he neglected to report on how he hyped the McDonald’s Coffee Case story! 

Read about John Stossel’s biased and misreported stories

Real-life Erin Brockovich challenges “20/20” report

Prime-time propagandist – Is ABC’s John Stossel a reporter or a right-wing apparatchik?

Talking pure manure – Stossel, under heavy attack from environment and consumer groups, admitted he’d falsified evidence in the report, and that tests he’d said supported his claims had never been conducted.

Organics:  The Blurred Vision of ABC’s 20/20 <download  PDF version

ABC: Organic Food Report Incorrect John Stossel Repeatedly Broadcast Falsehoods Against Organic Foods (download)  ABC admits report was wrong.

MORE UNDERHANDED REPORTING FROM ABC NEWS and John Stossel 

Tell John Stossel to report the truth accurately! [email protected]

The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Movie

See the video trailer of the Hot Coffee movie shows the real truth!  Hot Coffee is an excellent documentary that exposes the tort reform movement which successfully fooled many people into believing tort reform would help consumers and the economy.  See the official Hot Coffee Movie website at HotCoffeeTheMovie.com.  See Hot Coffee The Movie on Facebook

American Museum of Tort Law – their website also has the real information about the McDonald’s hot coffee case.