McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case: A Retrospective

The case which added fuel to the tort reform fires already burning around the country turns 22 this month. In the popular media, this personal injury case was about a woman who spilled a cup of hot coffee on herself and sued McDonald’s for $3 million. But, as is often the case, the truth is far different.

Pre-Suit Activity

Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants involved a 79-year-old department store clerk who pulled into the drive-thru of a McDonald’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico and ordered a cup of coffee on February 27, 1992. At the time, McDonald’s required its restaurants to serve coffee at 190 degrees, or only slightly cooler than boiling water. The restaurant knew, or should have known, that 190-degree liquid could cause third degree burns – the kind of burns that require skin grafts to address – in as little as two seconds. The restaurant also knew, or should have known, that most other fast-food franchises served their coffee at about 160 degrees, a temperature that was not significantly lower yet meant that the victim had twenty seconds between spill and serious injury. There’s more. In the ten years preceding the case, McDonald’s had received over 700 complaints about coffee-related personal injury, paid over $500,000 to settle these claims, yet did nothing to alter its procedures.

Ms. Liebeck was wearing a thin dress at the time, and when she spilled the coffee in her lap, the contents quickly seeped through the dress and onto the inner portion of her thighs. She incurred $10,500 in medical bills and doctors estimated that she would incur about $2,500 in future medical expenses; her daughter lost $5,000 in income because she stayed home to take care of her mother. When the company offered a mere $800 to settle the personal injury matter, Ms. Liebeck filed suit.

The Lawsuit and Aftermath

Based on evidence presented at trial, the jury found McDonald’s 80 percent responsible for Ms. Liebeck’s injuries, and Ms. Liebeck herself responsible for 20 percent, and it awarded both compensatory and punitive damages. The $2.7 million in punitive damages represented a mere two days’ worth of coffee sales for the fast-food giant.

While the $2.7 million figure is the one most people remember, the judge actually reduced the amount to less than $500,000. Before the case was appealed, the parties reached a confidential settlement, which was probably even less than that.

Today, McDonald’s still serves its coffee at the same temperature, but it has changed the packaging to make it stronger and safer. So, personal injury lawsuits make a difference because they make dangerous products safer and make negligent drivers use more caution.

At Hoffoss Devall, we are committed to maximum recovery for victims regardless of the circumstances. Contact our Lake Charles office today for a free consultation, because we do not charge upfront legal fees in personal injury cases.