The case of Stella Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants—more commonly known as the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit—is often cited as a classic example of frivolous litigation in the United States. In much of the public’s eye, Stella Lieback was a greedy plaintiff who spilled warm coffee on her lap while driving and decided to cash in by suing a big corporation for millions of dollars.
As country singer Toby Keith put it in his song “American Drive”: Spill a cup of coffee, make a million dollars.
The real case, however, isn’t nearly that simple.
Let’s take a look at the facts of this widely misreported and misunderstood personal injury lawsuit.
The background of the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit
On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, 79 years old, purchased a cup of McDonald’s coffee. While sitting in the passenger seat of her grandson’s parked car, she attempted to remove the lid in order to add cream while holding the coffee cup between her knees.
The cup tipped over and the scalding hot coffee poured onto her lap.
How hot was the coffee?
At the time of the incident, all McDonald’s restaurants were required to serve coffee between 180 and 190 degrees. At this temperature, spilled coffee causes third-degree burns in less than 3 seconds.
“Our position was that the product was unreasonably dangerous, and the temperature should have been lower,” Stella’s attorney Kenneth Wagner said.
Most other restaurants serve coffee at 160 degrees, which takes 20 seconds to cause third-degree burns (usually enough time to wipe away the coffee). Home coffee makers typically brew coffee at about 135-150 degrees.
How badly was she burned?
Stella suffered third-degree burns (the most serious and painful kind) on more than 16% of her body, including her inner thighs, genitals, and buttocks where the skin was burned down to the layers of muscle and fatty tissue.
As a result of her burns, Stella had to be hospitalized for 8 days and she required skin grafts and other extensive treatment. Her recovery lasted 2 years.
What’s more, Stella was not alone. At least 700 other people informed McDonald’s that they had been burned by McDonald’s coffee before Stella, yet the company refused to change its policy of keeping coffee 30 degrees hotter than other restaurants and coffee shops.
Why didn’t Stella try to settle the case before filing a lawsuit?
One of the common misconceptions about the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit is that Stella was eager to sue McDonald’s for millions of dollars. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Stella spent 6 months trying to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000 and then $15,000 to help cover her medical expenses, but McDonald’s refused. Instead, McDonald’s offered Stella $800. McDonald’s also refused Stella’s request to lower the temperature of their coffee in order to prevent future injuries to other customers.
Stella Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants lawsuit
Unable to settle, Stella filed a personal injury lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico alleging that McDonald’s was “grossly negligent” for selling coffee that was “unreasonably dangerous.”
Even after filing the lawsuit, Stella’s attorney attempted to settle the case for $90,000, but McDonald’s refused once again.
The trial began on August 8th before New Mexico District Court Judge Robert H. Scott.
Evidence presented at trial showed that McDonald’s required franchisees to keep coffee heated between 180-190 degrees and that the restaurant received more than 700 complaints from customers who were burned as a result of the coffee.
At the end of the trial, the jury awarded Stella $200,000 in compensatory damages (reduced to $160,000 because the jury found her 20% at fault) and $2.7 million in punitive damages (reduced to $480,000 by the judge).
Both parties appealed and the lawsuit was ultimately settled for less than $600,000.
The aftermath of the McDonald’s hot coffee case
After the trial, a small article appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. From there, the story spread like wildfire—becoming less and less accurate as it spread. Even reputable sources like NBC News published articles describing the lawsuit as “the poster child of excessive lawsuits.”
Stella died on August 5, 2004, at the age of 91. Her daughter explained that “the burns and court proceedings took their toll” on her and that Stella had “no quality of life” after the trial, although the settlement at least helped pay for a live-in nurse.
Since the verdict was handed down in 1994, a number of lawsuits have been filed against coffee vendors, including Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Burger King, as a result of coffee-related burns. In most cases, the coffee temperature was not as hot as the coffee in Stella’s case and the plaintiffs were not successful.