Scales of Justice

Tye Smith: McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case Is Not What You Think

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By Tye Smith, attorney in our Oklahoma City office

I had planned to write about the second reason why BIG business wants these laws passed.  That’s going to have to wait.

A lot of people I talk to about these issues always say something along the lines of, “Well, I tend to agree with you, but wouldn’t you also have to agree with me that when people are getting millions of dollars for spilling coffee on themselves, something needs to be fixed?”  So, let’s talk about hot coffee.

This McDonald’s coffee case is such a shocking example of BIG business being intellectually dishonest with America that a documentary has been produced.  The film is called “Hot Coffee.”  It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was such a hit that it was bought by HBO.  It should be on TV pretty soon.  You won’t want to miss it.  Click the video to watch an interview with the lady who made the film.  It is worth the 2 minutes it takes to watch it.


BIG business spent umpteen million dollars promoting lies about the McDonald’s coffee case as an example of why our legal system needs fixed.  The public was never given the true story about what happened.  As a result, good intentioned people like yourself were only told the lie that BIG business paid to promote and people like yourself were tricked into believing the lie.

I call this being intellectually dishonest.  It sickens me.  My hope is that when you are given the facts, you will be just as outraged at those who promoted the lie as you were at the lawyers, legal system and the old lady who supposedly got rich.  Fortunately, other people before me have written an account of what really happened, so I am going to borrow from their work.

The Facts Of The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case

Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car when she was severely burned by McDonald’s coffee in February 1992. Liebeck, 79 at the time, ordered coffee that was served in a Styrofoam cup at the drive-through window of a local McDonald’s.

After receiving the order, the grandson pulled his car forward and stopped momentarily so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee.  Critics of civil justice, who have pounced on this case, often charge that Liebeck was driving the car or that the vehicle was in motion when she spilled the coffee; neither is true.  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 (commonly called third-degree burns) over six percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting.  Liebeck, who also endured painful debridement treatments, sought to settle her claim for $20,000 but McDonald’s refused.

McDonald’s Knew The Coffee Was Dangerously Hot

During discovery (discovery is the pre-trial process where each party asks for information from the other side to discover important facts), McDonald’s produced documents showing more than 700 claims by people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992.  Some claims involved third-degree burns substantially similar to Liebeck’s.  This history documented McDonald’s  knowledge about the extent and nature of this hazard.

McDonald’s also said during discovery that, based on a consultant’s advice, it held its coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain optimum taste. The consultant admitted that he had not evaluated the safety ramifications at this temperature. Other establishments sell coffee at substantially lower temperatures, and coffee served at home is generally 135 to 140 degrees.

Further, a 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 for consumption 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.

The plaintiff’s expert, a scholar in thermodynamics 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. However, the company’s own research showed that customers intend to consume the coffee immediately while driving.

McDonald’s also argued that consumers know coffee is hot and that its customers want it that way. The company admitted its customers were unaware that they could suffer third degree burns from the coffee and that a statement on the side of the cup was not a “warning” but a “reminder” since the location of the writing would not warn customers of the hazard.

The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages.  (Compensatory damages are compensationfor losses such as the value of your car if it were totaled in a wreck.)  This amount was reduced 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 (punitive damages are intended to punish the person or company from doing the harmful act again in the future).  Oh, and that amount equals about two days of McDonald’s coffee sales.

Post-verdict investigation found that the temperature of coffee at the local Albuquerque McDonald’s had dropped to 158 degrees Fahrenheit.

The trial court subsequently reduced the punitive award to $480,000 — or three times compensatory damages — even though the judge called McDonald’s conduct reckless, callous and willful.

Secret Settlement

No one will ever know the final ending to this case.  The parties eventually entered into a secret settlement which has never been revealed to the public, despite the fact that this was a public case, litigated in public and subjected to extensive media reporting. Such secret settlements, after public trials, should not be condoned.

So there is what really happened.  McDonald’s knew its coffee was too hot to be served safely to its customers but sold it that way anyway because it would supposedly taste better, resulting in more sales and in turn, more profit.  Putting profits over safety is always a bad idea.  Or is it?

Let’s be honest, if you set aside the moral issue, it is only a bad idea to put profits over safety if you can be held accountable when you get caught.  Well, remember, to have a conscience, you need a heart.  BIG business has no heart, only bank accounts.  Hence, BIG business’s relentless efforts to do away with corporate accountability.  End result?  BIG business can put profits over your and your family’s safety and not have to answer for it.

I told you this was a BIG problem.  We haven’t even scratched the surface.  Please hang around for more.  Thanks, Tye.

Parts excerpted from ATLA fact sheet. © 1995, 1996 by Consumer Attorneys of California
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