The “Mcdonald’s Coffee” Case

In one of the most widely misreported and misunderstood cases in recent memory, a Albuquerque, New Mexico jury awarded 79 year-old Stella Liebeck $2.9 million for severe burns suffered after she spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee, which she had placed between her knees. www mcdvoice com

The jury’s award was for $200,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million for punitive damages (because of McDonald’s callous conduct). The jury also found Mrs. Liebeck 20% negligent, reducing the compensatory damages to $160,000. The trial judge also reduced the punitive damages to $480,000.
Mrs. Liebeck did not receive $2.9 million, or $2.86 million, or $740,000. The parties entered a post-verdict settlement for a undisclosed amount.

(States have different legal standards with respect to negligence. New Mexico uses a comparative negligence rule, which assigns blame and, therefore, judgments proportionally. Other states such as North Carolina use a contributory negligence standard, which bars a plaintiff from recovery if their actions contributed even 1% to the accident!)


Mrs. Liebeck, while a passenger in her grandson’s car, purchased a cup of coffee at the drive-through window at McDonalds. While the car was stopped, she placed the cup securely between her knees and attempted to remove the lid. The cup accidentally tipped over and poured the scalding (180-190ยก Fahrenheit) hot water onto her lap.

She suffered third-degree burns over 16 percent of her body. During her eight day hospitalization she underwent skin grafting and painful whirlpool treatment for debridement (removal of damaged tissue) of her wounds. She has extensive scarring and was disabled for more than two years.

Despite these very painful and debilitating injuries and their expensive medical treatment, Mrs. Liebeck offered to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000.

McDonald’s refused to settle and the case went to trial.


The jury heard the following evidence in the case:

o McDonalds’s coffee sales are $1.3 million per day.

o By corporate specifications, McDonald’s sells its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit; Coffee at that temperature, if spilled, causes third-degree burns (the skin is burned away down to the muscle/fatty-tissue layer) in two to seven seconds; Third-degree burns do not heal without skin grafting, debridement and whirlpool treatments that cost tens of thousands of dollars and result in permanent disfigurement, extreme pain and disability of the victim for many months, and in some cases, years;

o The chairman of the department of mechanical engineering and bio-mechanical engineering at the University of Texas testified that this risk of harm is unacceptable, as did a widely recognized expert on burns, the editor in chief of the leading scholarly publication in the specialty, the Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation;

o McDonald’s admitted that it has known about the risk of serious burns from its scalding hot coffee for more than 10 years — the risk was brought to its attention through numerous other claims and suits, to no avail;

o From 1982 to 1992, McDonald’s coffee burned more than 700 people, many receiving severe burns to the genital area, perineum, inner thighs, and buttocks;

o Not only men and women, but also children and infants, have been burned by McDonald’s scalding hot coffee, in some instances due to inadvertent spillage by McDonald’s employees;

o At least one woman had coffee dropped in her lap through the service window, causing third-degree burns to her inner thighs and other sensitive areas, which resulted in disability for years;

o Witnesses for McDonald’s admitted in court that consumers are unaware of the extent of the risk of serious burns from spilled coffee served at McDonald’s required temperature;