The Real Facts About the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Lawsuit

Hot coffee cup

There was a lot of hype about the McDonalds hot coffee lawsuit, especially by John Stossel at ABC News. No one is in favor of frivolous cases and outlandish results, however, it is important to understand some key points 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?  Unfortunately, without the reader becoming emotional, the story is boring.  In order to make it 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 story, untold by the media:

How Did Stella Liebeck Get Burned by McDonalds Hot Coffee

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 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.

How the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case Got Started

McDonalds refused to pay the 79-year-old woman’s initial medical expenses totaling $11,000. McDonalds actually countered with an offer of $800. They also refused to turn down the heat on their coffee. Left with $20,000 unpaid bills, Stella Liebeck, a Republican who had never filed a law suit in her life, finally hired a lawyer. Liebeck sought to settle her claim for only $20,000, but McDonald’s refused. A mediator later recommended 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 showing that they knew of more than 700 claims by people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992 were admitted in to evidence. 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 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.

The quality assurance manager admitted that burns would occur, but 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. He 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, the company’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. The company admitted its customers were unaware that they could suffer third degree burns from the coffee 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

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 Jury Award in the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case?

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 equals about two days of McDonald’s coffee sales. 

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

It has been reported that Stella Liebeck received less than $600,000.

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 the amount for pain-and-suffering and medical expenses of $160,000, so Stella Liebeck should have received $640,000.

But no one will ever really know 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 law suits are the only effective mechanism which force companies to produce safe products. 

Additionally, 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 know 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, $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) the Liebeck car was not moving, but was stopped; and 3) the verdict was substantially reduced.  Although John Stossel produced a story on ABC News called “HYPE” in which he accused reporters of creating hype to get attention, 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

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


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

The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Movie

The Hot Coffee movie shows the real truth!  Hot Coffee is an excellent documentary that exposes the tort reform movement (with candid admissions from inside 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  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.