The McDonald's Hot Coffee Lawsuit Was Notorious In The '90s - For All The Wrong Reasons

Over the years, the McDonald's hot coffee lawsuit has become heavily associated with the supposed epidemic of frivolous lawsuits in the United States. Most people see the case as the story of a woman who clumsily spilled coffee on her own lap and sued McDonald's in retaliation. However, that is largely untrue and only a fraction of the story. 

The McDonald's coffee lawsuit was really serious. Stella Liebeck, who spilled coffee on her lap on February 27, 1992, suffered serious burns that required hospitalization. And Liebeck sued McDonald's only when they refused to pay her medical bills. During the subsequent trial, McDonald's representatives displayed a disturbing lack of regard for public safety.

If you thought the McDonald's lawsuits was frivolous, guess again. The lawsuit actually shines a light on how the franchise operates (or operated), illustrating how the company placed profits ahead of the health and safety of its consumers. The case is continuously cited in pop-culture, but the facts are largely misrepresented. In 2011, the Hot Coffee documentary was released, which attempted to dispel misinformation about the case.

Here is the true story of how a 79-year-old woman sued McDonald's over a cup of steaming hot coffee. 

Photo: MIKI Yoshihito. (#mikiyoshihito) / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

  • McDonald's Coffee Was So Hot, It Could Cause Third-Degree Burns In Just Seconds

    McDonald’s coffee was kept between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit. While it's true that most customers love their coffee hot, these temperatures are extremely dangerous. When kept this hot, coffee can cause third-degree burns in just three to seven seconds if spilled.

  • Liebeck's Injuries Were Too Severe To Possibly Be Caused By An Average Cup Of Coffee

    Without context, the case does sound a little ridiculous. How could someone expect to be paid $20,000 in damages over a spilled cup of coffee? The thing is, no normal cup of coffee could possibly have caused the level of injuries Stella Liebeck sustained. The coffee spilled on her groin, thighs, and genital area – roughly six percent of her body – resulting in third-degree burns. 

    Skin grafts were required to repair the damage, resulting in an eight-day stay at a hospital. The average person spills a cup of coffee on themselves now and again, but it doesn't usually require hospitalization. 

  • Over 700 People Suffered Burns Similar To Liebeck's

    During trial, some disturbing facts came out regarding McDonald’s coffee. From 1982 to 1992, McDonald’s received over 700 complaints about their coffee's temperature. These were all related to intense burns, often similar to the ones Liebeck sustained. Clearly, this was not an isolated incident and McDonald’s had been well-aware of the problem for quite some time.

  • McDonald's Own Quality Assurance Manager Admitted Their Coffee Was Unsafe For Human Consumption

    When a quality assurance manager for McDonald’s testified in court, the corporation suffered another major blow. The employee confirmed the company requires coffee be kept around 185 degrees Fahrenheit, and that any food kept above 140 degrees Fahrenheit carries a burn hazard.

    He even went as far to say McDonald’s coffee – when initially poured – was not safe for human consumption, as it would burn the mouth and throat.

  • Liebeck Never Wanted To Go To Court Or Profit Off The Incident

    Stella Liebeck was not a malicious woman eager to drag the McDonald’s name through the dirt and get her moment in the spotlight. She never wanted the national attention and, in fact, never wanted to go to court.

    She wasn't actually seeking to profit off the incident either. She only wanted McDonald’s to pay her medical bills, which came out to around $20,000. Liebeck only sued after McDonald’s refused to pay her bills. Instead, the corporation offered her a mere $800.

    Additionally, Liebeck never once blamed the spill itself on McDonald’s. She took full responsibility for handling the coffee poorly, resulting in the spilling. However, she believed the coffee was dangerously hot, and had it been kept at a reasonable temperature, the spill would have been a minor inconvenience instead of an incident that caused severe burns.

  • Young Children Had Been Burned By McDonald's Coffee

    As the case wore on, more disturbing stories about McDonald’s coffee surfaced. It wasn't just grown men and women getting burned by the coffee, there had been numerous cases of children receiving burns as well. Even worse, these burns were often due to McDonald’s employees accidentally spilling coffee while serving guests.