Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants

Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants
Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants
Full case name Stella Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, P.T.S., Inc. and McDonald's International, Inc.
Date decided Aug. 18, 1994
Citation(s) 1994 Extra LEXIS 23 (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. 1994), 1995 WL 360309 (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. 1994),
Judge(s) sitting Robert H. Scott

Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants,[1] also known as the McDonald's coffee case and the hot coffee lawsuit, is a 1994 product liability lawsuit that became a flashpoint in the debate in the U.S. over tort reform after a jury awarded $160,000 [2] to cover medical expenses and compensatory damages (in addition to $2.7 million in punitive damages) to Liebeck who suffered 3rd degree burns on a sensitive area of her lap by hot coffee purchased from fast food restaurant McDonald's. The trial judge reduced the final verdict, and the parties settled for a confidential amount before an appeal was decided. The case was noted by some as an example of frivolous litigation;[2] ABC News called the case "the poster child of excessive lawsuits,"[3] while others stated that the claim was "a meaningful and worthy lawsuit."[4]

Liebeck's attorneys argued that McDonald's coffee was "defective," claiming it was too hot and more likely to cause serious injury than coffee served at any other establishment. Moreover, McDonald's had refused several prior opportunities to settle for less than the $640,000 ultimately awarded.[5] Reformers defend the popular understanding of the case as materially accurate, note that the vast majority of judges who consider similar cases dismiss them before they get to a jury,[6] and argue that McDonald's refusal to offer more than an $800 settlement for the $10,500 in medical bills reflects the meritless nature of the suit rather than any wrongdoing on the company's part.[7][8][9]


Burn incident

On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, ordered a 49-cent cup of coffee from the drive-through window of a local McDonald's restaurant. Liebeck was in the passenger's seat of her Ford Probe, and her grandson Chris parked the car so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Liebeck placed the coffee cup between her knees and pulled the far side of the lid toward her to remove it. In the process, she spilled the entire cup of coffee on her lap.[10] Liebeck was wearing cotton sweatpants; they absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin, scalding her thighs, buttocks, and groin.[11] Liebeck was taken to the hospital, where it was determined that she had suffered third-degree burns on six percent of her skin and lesser burns over sixteen percent.[12] She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent skin grafting. During this period, Liebeck lost 20 pounds (9 kg, nearly 20% of her body weight), reducing her down to 83 pounds (38 kg).[13] Two years of medical treatment followed.

Settlement offers

Liebeck sought to settle with McDonald's for $20,000 to cover her actual and anticipated expenses. Her past medical expenses were $10,500; her anticipated future medical expenses were approximately $2,500; and her loss of income was approximately $5,000 for a total of approximately $18,000.[14] Instead, the company offered only $800. When McDonald's refused to raise its offer, Liebeck retained Texas attorney Reed Morgan. Morgan filed suit in New Mexico District Court accusing McDonald's of "gross negligence" for selling coffee that was "unreasonably dangerous" and "defectively manufactured". McDonald's refused Morgan's offer to settle for $90,000.[5] Morgan offered to settle for $300,000, and a mediator suggested $225,000 just before trial, but McDonald's refused these final pre-trial attempts to settle.[5]

Trial and verdict

The trial took place from August 8–17, 1994, before Judge Robert H. Scott.[15] During the case, Liebeck's attorneys discovered that McDonald's required franchisees to serve coffee at 180–190 °F (82–88 °C). At that temperature, the coffee would cause a third-degree burn in two to seven seconds. Stella Liebeck's attorney argued that coffee should never be served hotter than 140 °F (60 °C), and that a number of other establishments served coffee at a substantially lower temperature than McDonald's. Liebeck's lawyers presented the jury with evidence that 180 °F (82 °C) coffee like that McDonald’s served may produce third-degree burns (where skin grafting is necessary) in about 12 to 15 seconds. Lowering the temperature to 160 °F (71 °C) would increase the time for the coffee to produce such a burn to 20 seconds. (A British court later rejected this argument as scientifically false finding that 149 °F (65 °C) liquid could cause deep tissue damage in only two seconds.[16]) Liebeck's attorneys argued that these extra seconds could provide adequate time to remove the coffee from exposed skin, thereby preventing many burns. McDonald's claimed that the reason for serving such hot coffee in its drive-through windows was that those who purchased the coffee typically were commuters who wanted to drive a distance with the coffee; the high initial temperature would keep the coffee hot during the trip.[5] McDonalds research showed customers intend to consume the coffee while driving to their destination.[17]

Other documents obtained from McDonald's showed that from 1982 to 1992 the company had received more than 700 reports of people burned by McDonald's coffee to varying degrees of severity, and had settled claims arising from scalding injuries for more than $500,000.[5] McDonald's quality control manager, Christopher Appleton, testified that this number of injuries was insufficient to cause the company to evaluate its practices. He argued that all foods hotter than 130 °F (54 °C) constituted a burn hazard, and that restaurants had more pressing dangers to warn about. The plaintiffs argued that Appleton conceded that McDonald's coffee would burn the mouth and throat if consumed when served.[18]

A twelve-person jury reached its verdict on August 18, 1994.[15] Applying the principles of comparative negligence, the jury found that McDonald's was 80% responsible for the incident and Liebeck was 20% at fault. Though there was a warning on the coffee cup, the jury decided that the warning was neither large enough nor sufficient. They awarded Liebeck US$200,000 in compensatory damages, which was then reduced by 20% to $160,000. In addition, they awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages. The jurors apparently arrived at this figure from Morgan's suggestion to penalize McDonald's for one or two days' worth of coffee revenues, which were about $1.35 million per day.[5] The judge reduced punitive damages to $480,000, three times the compensatory amount, for a total of $640,000. The decision was appealed by both McDonald's and Liebeck in December 1994, but the parties settled out of court for an undisclosed amount less than $600,000.[19]

Similar lawsuits

Similar lawsuits against McDonald's in the United Kingdom failed. In Bogle v. McDonald’s Restaurants Ltd. Field J rejected the claim that McDonald's could have avoided injury by serving coffee at a lower temperature.

"If this submission be right, McDonald's should not have served drinks at any temperature which would have caused a bad scalding injury. The evidence is that tea or coffee served at a temperature of 65 C will cause a deep thickness burn if it is in contact with the skin for just two seconds. Thus, if McDonald’s were going to avoid the risk of injury by a deep thickness burn they would have had to have served tea and coffee at between 55 C and 60 C. But tea ought to be brewed with boiling water if it is to give its best flavour and coffee ought to be brewed at between 85 C and 95 C. Further, people generally like to allow a hot drink to cool to the temperature they prefer. Accordingly, I have no doubt that tea and coffee served at between 55 C and 60 C would not have been acceptable to McDonald's customers. Indeed, on the evidence, I find that the public want to be able to buy tea and coffee served hot, that is to say at a temperature of at least 65 C, even though they know (as I think they must be taken to do for the purposes of answering issues (1) and (2)) that there is a risk of a scalding injury if the drink is spilled."[16]

Other major vendors of coffee, including Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, Wendy's, and Burger King have been subjected to similar lawsuits over third-degree burns.

Liebeck's attorney, Reed Morgan, and the Association of Trial Lawyers of America defend the lawsuit by claiming that McDonald's reduced the temperature of their coffee after the suit. Morgan has since brought other lawsuits against McDonald's over hot-coffee burns.[20] McDonald's policy today is to serve coffee between 80–90 °C (176–194 °F),[21] relying on more sternly-worded warnings on cups made of rigid foam to avoid future liability, though it continues to face lawsuits over hot coffee.[21][22] The Specialty Coffee Association supports improved packaging methods rather than lowering the temperature at which coffee is served.[20] The association has successfully aided the defense of subsequent coffee burn cases.[23]

Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote a unanimous 7th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion affirming dismissal of a similar lawsuit against coffeemaker manufacturer Bunn-O-Matic. The opinion noted that hot coffee (179 °F (82 °C) in this case) is not "unreasonably dangerous."

The smell (and therefore the taste) of coffee depends heavily on the oils containing aromatic compounds that are dissolved out of the beans during the brewing process. Brewing temperature should be close to 200 °F [93 °C] to dissolve them effectively, but without causing the premature breakdown of these delicate molecules. Coffee smells and tastes best when these aromatic compounds evaporate from the surface of the coffee as it is being drunk. Compounds vital to flavor have boiling points in the range of 150–160 °F [66–71 °C], and the beverage therefore tastes best when it is this hot and the aromatics vaporize as it is being drunk. For coffee to be 150 °F when imbibed, it must be hotter in the pot. Pouring a liquid increases its surface area and cools it; more heat is lost by contact with the cooler container; if the consumer adds cream and sugar (plus a metal spoon to stir them) the liquid's temperature falls again. If the consumer carries the container out for later consumption, the beverage cools still further.[24]

Hot Coffee documentary

HBO premiered a documentary about the problems with tort reform. The film titled Hot Coffee premiered on June 27, 2011.[25] The title was taken from this case, Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants. A big portion of the film covered Liebeck's lawsuit. This included news clips, comments from celebrities and politicians about the case, as well as myths and misconceptions including how many people thought she was driving when the incident occurred. The film also discussed in great depth how Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants is often used and misused to describe a frivolous lawsuit and referenced in conjunction with tort reform efforts.[26]

See also


  1. ^ Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, P.T.S., Inc., No. D-202 CV-93-02419, 1995 WL 360309 (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. August 18, 1994), docket entry from
  2. ^ Mark B. Greenlee, "Kramer v. Java World: Images, Issues, and Idols in the Debate Over Tort Reform," 26 Cap. U.L. Rev. 701
  3. ^ ABC News, "I'm Being Sued for What?", 2 May 2007
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ a b c d e f Andrea Gerlin, Wall Street Journal, "A Matter of Degree: How a Jury Decided that a Coffee Spill is Worth $2.9 Million," September 1, 1994, p. A1, available from Reed Morgan's website
  6. ^ See, e.g., McMahon v. Bunn-O-Matic, 150 F.3d 651, 654 (7th Cir. 1998)(listing cases).
  7. ^ Stephen Bainbridge (2004-08-01). "Trial lawyer propaganda at kos" (revised relocated blog entry). Retrieved 2008-05-14. [dead link] ("Archived copies from the original URL".*/ )
  8. ^ Anthony J. Sebok, Dispatches from the Tort Wars: A Review Essay, 85 Tex. L. Rev. 1465, 1509-10.
  9. ^ Ted Frank, "Urban legends and Stella Liebeck and the McDonald's coffee case",, 20 October 2005
  10. ^ Michael McCann, William Haltom, and Anne Bloom, "LAW & SOCIETY SYMPOSIUM: Java Jive: Genealogy of a Juridical Icon," 56 U. Miami L. Rev. 113 (October 2001), which describes the accident in detail
  11. ^ See Gerlin. See also Ralph Nader & Wesley J. Smith, No Contest: Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America (1996) ISBN 0375752587, 268
  12. ^ Nader & Smith, No Contest, 268
  13. ^ Tort Law: The McDonald's Hot Coffee Case
  14. ^ Amended Complaint for Damages, Stella LIEBECK, Plaintiff, v. MCDONALD'S RESTAURANTS, P.T.S, Inc. and McDonald's Corportion, Defendants. 1993 WL 13651163, District Court of New Mexico, (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. October 5, 1993)
  15. ^ a b Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, docket entry from :"08/18/1994 NCJ: JURY TRIAL 12 PERSON::Filing Judgment entered solely against DF McDonald's and to PL for compensatory damages of $160,000.00 and punitive damages of 0$2,700,000.00plus interest and costs
  16. ^ a b Bogle & Ors v McDonald’s Restaurants Ltd. [2002] EWHC 490, at 33
  17. ^ The Actual Facts About the McDonald's Coffee Case in my freshest jay's i aint slept in days.
  18. ^ See Gerlin. See also trial and deposition transcripts reproduced in Nader & Smith, 270-272
  19. ^ Daniel J. Shapiro, Punitive Damages, 43 La. B.J. 252, 254 n.1 (1995)
  20. ^ a b Matt Fleischer-Black (2004-06-04). "One Lump or Two? Infamous coffee-burn case — which inspired both caricature and quiet reform — about to get a 10th-anniversary rerun.". The American Lawyer. ALM Media, Inc. Retrieved 2008-05-13. "Ted Lingle, the executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America [said] ‘the answer is in more secure packaging.’" 
  21. ^ a b "Burger chain sued after boy's ordeal". Cambridge News. Cambridge Newspapers Ltd, Cambridge UK. 2007-06-22. Retrieved 2008-05-14. "Matthew Allen, 10, suffered second degree burns after he bumped into his mum's tray and the drink tipped on to his arm. ... He saw a plastic surgeon because it was feared he would need a skin graft. ... McDonald's says its black coffee should be served at 85 °C, plus or minus five degrees." 
  22. ^ Greenlee, 26 Cap. U.L. Rev. 701, 724
  23. ^ Id., which cites Lesly Pogerew v. Brothers Gourmet Coffees Inc., No. 96-CV-93848 (Denver Co., Dist. Ct., CO November 19, 1997)
  24. ^ McMahon v. Bunn-O-Matic Corp., 150 F.3d 651 (7th Cir. 1997)
  25. ^ Hot Coffee (2011) at the Internet Movie Database
  26. ^ Doroshow, Joanne (June 26, 2011). "Watch Hot Coffee, a Powerful New Film on HBO June 27". Huffington Post. Retrieved 28 June 2011. 

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