The Real Facts of the McDonald’s Coffee Case

Given the serious injuries involved in our client’s cases, and Oregon insurers’ refusal to make reasonable settlement offers (or any offer at all), many of our clients end up in trial because the rest of their life depends upon the outcome of their case.

Perhaps the most important part of a trial is jury selection.  Without twelve unbiased jurors, our client has no chance of receiving justice no matter whether the evidence and law should result in the client being fully compensated for their losses by the jury.

Cup of coffee

During jury selection in every trial, we receive a very strong reaction to questions about “frivolous lawsuits” and in particular to what many people simply refer to as the “McDonald’s coffee case.”  Some politicians and certain elements of the media have twisted this case into an urban myth, rather than reality.  Many people now believe that the woman who sued McDonalds for hot coffee was driving her car and put hot coffee in her lap, and then sued McDonalds for millions of dollars for a getting a little hot coffee on herself without making any attempt to settle the case.  These twisted facts suggest to some Americans the downfall of our society by a greedy woman who failed to take personal responsibility and instead blamed a greatly loved American corporation that had done nothing wrong.

In hopes of setting the record straight, we would like to provide the public the real facts of the case and why a New Mexico jury compensated the woman.

McDonalds intentionally made their coffee so hot, they knew it would burn people.

You may have heard that the woman who sued McDonalds was stupid and that it was her fault because she spilled coffee on herself while she was driving.  The truth is, Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, wasn’t the driver and the car wasn’t moving. She was the passenger in her grandson’s car when she was severely burned by McDonald’s coffee in February 1992. Liebeck ordered coffee that was served in a Styrofoam cup at the drive-through window of a local McDonald’s.

After receiving the order, Stella’s grandson pulled his car forward and stopped so that she could add cream and sugar to her coffee. 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.

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 (or third-degree burns) over 6 percent of her body, including her vagina, inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and groin areas. She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting. She was elderly and lost 20 pounds - approximately 20% of her body weight, taking her down to 83 pounds.  She required treatment on the burns for the next two years.  

Despite the severity of the injury, she sought to settle her claim for only $20,000 – the cost of her medical treatment. But McDonald’s refused. According to some accounts, they offered her $800.  This kind of settlement offer is something we commonly see in personal injury cases, and it is something that jurors never hear about in trial.

McDonalds coffee burn injuries

During discovery (the exchange of documents in a legal case), McDonald’s produced documents showing more than 700 earlier claims by people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some claims involved severe and permanently scarring third-degree burns substantially similar to Liebeck’s. This history documented McDonald’s knowledge about the extent and nature of the burn hazard of its coffee.  The question is why had the coffee already burned so many people, and why did McDonalds choose to continue making its coffee so hot?

McDonald’s admitted during discovery that, based on a consultant’s advice, it held its coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure that it would still be hot once a person had driven several miles to work before drinking it. Other establishments sell coffee at substantially lower temperatures, and coffee served at home is generally 135 to 140 degrees.

McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that the company actively enforces 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 to drink 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.

Stella Lieback’s expert witness, a scholar in thermodynamics as applied to human skin burns, testified that liquids, at 180 degrees, will cause a full thickness 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.

McDonald’s asserted that customers buy coffee on their way to work or home, intending to consume it there. But the company’s own research showed that customers intend to consume coffee immediately while driving.  This would be even more true for passengers such as Stella.

McDonald’s also argued that consumers know coffee is hot and that its customers want it that way. But the company admitted its customers were unaware that they could suffer third-degree burns from the coffee.  McDonalds knew that its coffee was dangerous as served to its customers, but continued doing it.

The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. This amount was reduced by the judge to $160,000 because the jury found Liebeck 20 percent at fault in the spill. The jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which equals about two days of McDonald’s coffee sales.

An investigation after the jury verdict found that the temperature of coffee at the local Albuquerque McDonald’s had dropped from 185 degrees to 158 degrees Fahrenheit.  The jury had sent a message that was understood by the company, which had changed its behavior as a result of the jury verdict.  That is the purpose of the punitive damages provided by the jury – to send a clear message to the defendant that they must improve their business practices for the safety of the public.

After the jury verdict, the trial court reduced the punitive damage amount to $480,000 — or three times compensatory damages — even though the judge called McDonald’s conduct reckless, callous and willful. After this, the parties entered a post-verdict settlement for even less.  This settlement agreement included a confidentiality agreement, which prohibited Stella Liebeck from ever discussing the case.  So, while McDonalds, corporate America, talk show hosts and the media hammered away on her reputation as a greedy person, Stella Leibeck could never tell her side of the story about how badly she had been injured.  She died being the namesake of the “Stella Awards” a blog and book about frivolous lawsuits and greedy litigious people.  We find many of the cases included in the Stella Awards misleading, and intended to demean the 7th Amendment of the United States Constitution.  People who believe these cases are real will claim to be patriotic Americans, while at the same time attempting to destroy one of the most important rights provided to Americans in the Bill of Rights.  

It was only after Stella Liebeck’s death that an HBO documentary called “Hot Coffee” disclosed the real facts of the McDonald’s coffee case, and demonstrating corporate attacks on the jury system that protects all people.  (You can see a preview on YouTube.) 

Unfortunately, many people still believe that a jury of citizens who provided compensation to Stella Leibeck for her third degree genital burns and medical bills after hearing the real facts of the case, was “out of control” leading to what some politicians refer to as “jackpot justice.”  Sadly, we find that rather than listening to the facts of any injury case, some jurors will conceal firmly held bias against injured people during jury selection, and then exercise those beliefs about incorrect information to provide zero compensation to a legitimately injured person once they get on a jury.  This is, of course, exactly what insurers and big corporations want, which is why they have used fake information about the McDonald’s Coffee Case for decades, knowing that McDonald’s had legally prevented Stella Lieback from responding with the truth with the confidentiality clause of her settlement agreement.  More recently, it has become clear that large corporations, including cigarette manufacturers, financially backed a disinformation campaign surrounding the McDonald’s coffee case to ensure that all jurors are contaminated by bias before sitting on a jury, so that they will provide no compensation to injured people.  This book, and this viral YouTube video discuss the campaign to destroy American’s right to an impartial civil jury trial.

At this point, you should ask yourself what if this was yourself, your girlfriend, your wife, or your mother? How would you feel about McDonalds subjecting you (or her) to this amount of medical bills, and this painful and humiliating kind of injury, and then offering you $800? How would it feel, when you couldn’t accept $800 and cover the other $19,200 in medical bills, when McDonalds, cigarette companies, insurance companies, and petroleum companies went on to destroy your reputation throughout the world? Now how does it feel to have been suckered by corporations, their politicians and talk show hosts to fight against people simply trying to get paid reasonably for their injuries as America’s founders guaranteed in the 7th Amendment?  That makes some people really angry.  And it is really easy to think everyone else is out to hit the “lawsuit lottery” until it is you that is hurt and everyone thinks you are the one who is out for jackpot justice.

This unfounded bias is one of many, but types of jury bias that seriously injured people face when attempting to get fair compensation for their personal and financial losses after someone hurts them.  In Oregon, with no legal consequence for providing a $0 settlement offer, many insurers are forcing seriously injured people to trial in order to get any money for their massive financial and personal losses from an injury.  Insurers are counting on the McDonald’s coffee case to supply them with a high percentage of biased jurors that think that the injured person is greedy, and looking for “jackpot justice” when in fact they are simply attempting to get compensated fairly for a loss that was not their fault.  The defense attempts to shift the American value of personal responsibility away from their client onto our injured client, and in the event of an insufficient verdict – the financial loss is passed on to other taxpayers including the jurors themselves through public benefits necessary to sustain the permanently injured person.

Given our experience in trial, picking a jury and discussing these issues, we do our best to find honest and neutral jurors who will fairly evaluate the evidence and law in a case to arrive at a verdict that fully and fairly compensates our clients for their losses.

If you have a serious personal injury case and need a trial lawyer who understands how to navigate the bias caused by the McDonald's Coffee Case, as well as other jury bias, please contact our office for a free consultation. 

Further Resources on the McDonald's Coffee Case:

The New York Times, video:  "Woman Burned by McDonald's Hot Coffee"

Jury Matters, Interactive: See How You Would Decide the McDonald's Coffee Case

Wikipedia: Leibeck v. McDonald's Restaurants

About the

Aaron DeShaw is a personal injury lawyer at DeShaw Trial Lawyers, a law firm representing injured people with serious injuries including brain injuries and other catastrophic injuries. He has individually, and in association with other law firms, obtained over $1 Billion for his clients. Learn more about Aaron and the Firm.