The McDonald's Coffee Case

Even though the McDonald’s coffee case occurred almost 15 years ago, people still use the jury’s verdict in that case as an example of greedy plaintiffs, greedy lawyers, and runaway juries. However, anyone who knows what actually happened in that case would not find any fault with the result. Here are the facts.

Stella Liebeck was a passenger (she wasn’t driving) of her grandson’s car when she ordered coffee at a drive-through window of McDonald’s. The coffee came in the usual styrofoam cup, and while the car was stopped (the car was not moving), she removed the lid so she could add cream and sugar. It was at this point that the entire cup of coffee spilled into her lap. The coffee was absorbed by her sweatpants which held the hot coffee against her skin. She received third degree burns to her inner thighs, buttocks and groin area, and she needed painful debridement treatments.

Ms. Liebeck asked for $20,000 to settle her case, but McDonald’s refused to settle. After her lawyer filed suit, it was discovered that in the previous 10 years, more than 700 customers had been burned by McDonald’s coffee. This, of course, showed that McDonald’s was aware of the problem. It was also discovered that most other places sold their coffee at much lower temperatures. McDonald’s own quality assurance manager testified that at the temperature it was poured into the cups, McDonald’s coffee was not fit for consumption as it would burn the mouth and throat. At the same time, he also testified that McDonald’s had no intention of reducing the temperature.

The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 to compensate her for her injuries, but because she was found to be 20% at fault, that amount was reduced to $160,000. The jury also decided to send a message to McDonald’s, whose conduct was found to be reckless, callous and willful, and so it awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages, which equaled McDonald’s coffee sales in 2 days.

Two more points. The judge reduced the punitive damages award to $480,000, and McDonald’s reduced the temperature of its coffee.