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McDonald's Coffee

The McDonald's hot coffee case is one of the most famous personal injury lawsuits in American history, often cited in discussions about tort reform and supposed "frivolous" lawsuits. However, many aspects of this case have been misunderstood or misrepresented in popular media and public discourse. In this blog, we'll explore the actual details of the case to understand what really happened, why the lawsuit was filed, and its outcome.

The Incident:

In 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman, bought a cup of coffee from a McDonald's drive-thru in Albuquerque, New Mexico. While in the passenger seat of a parked car, she attempted to remove the lid to add cream and sugar, accidentally spilling the entire cup of coffee in her lap. The coffee was so hot (served at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit – the standard for serving coffee is 135-145 degrees Fahrenheit) that it caused third-degree burns on her legs, groin, and buttocks. She required hospitalization for eight days, undergoing skin grafting and other treatments for these severe burns.

Initial Settlement Efforts:

Contrary to popular belief, Liebeck's first intention wasn't to sue McDonald's. She requested the fast-food chain cover her medical expenses, which amounted to about $20,000. However, McDonald's only offered $800, prompting Liebeck to seek legal representation.

The Lawsuit:

The lawsuit wasn't merely about the coffee being hot; it was about how excessively hot McDonald's served their coffee and the severity of the injuries this caused. McDonald's had received more than 700 reports of people burned by their coffee in the previous decade, indicating a pattern of injuries and a potential safety issue. Despite these reports, they continued to serve coffee at temperatures that could cause severe burns within seconds of contact with skin.

The Trial and Verdict:

During the trial, it was revealed that McDonald's had guidelines to serve coffee at a temperature that could cause third-degree burns in just two to seven seconds. The jury found McDonald's was reckless in managing the temperature of their coffee. Liebeck was awarded $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages, the latter being an amount equivalent to two days' worth of McDonald's coffee sales.

Post-Trial Developments:

The judge later reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, leading to a total award of $640,000. However, Liebeck and McDonald's eventually settled for an undisclosed amount, which was less than $600,000 according to sources.


The McDonald's hot coffee case is not a tale of a litigious individual seeking a payday from a minor inconvenience. It's a story of a severe injury caused by a product that the company knew was dangerous. It underscores the importance of corporate responsibility and the role of personal injury law in holding entities accountable for negligent practices. This case stands as a reminder that behind every so-called "frivolous lawsuit" headline, there may be a much more complex and serious issue at hand, deserving of careful consideration and understanding.


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