The famous “McDonald’s coffee” product liability case


Everybody knows about this case, but nobody really knows the true facts.


Did you know:

  • The name of the 79 year old woman who was burned was Stella Liebeck.
  • The coffee she purchased at McDonald’s caused her to suffer severe and excruciatingly painful third-degree burns to her groin, thighs and buttocks which required multiple surgical skin grafts and a seven-day hospital stay. Her medical bills were almost $200,000.
  • She had never filed a lawsuit before this one and in fact, she didn’t want to file this lawsuit, but McDonald’s refused to help her pay any of her medical bills. She was asking for just $20,000 to pay some of her bills.
  • McDonald’s had over 700 coffee burn claims filed against it before this claim and was well aware that its coffee was burning people all over the country. It had already paid out over $500,000 due to prior burn injuries.
  • McDonald’s intentionally heated the coffee to 190 F despite the fact that it knew other restaurants only heated coffee to a safer temp of about 160 F. McDonald’s coffee was so scalding hot it was capable of burning off your skin and causing muscle and bone damage in just 2 seconds.
  • McDonald’s tactic in the case was to blame Mrs. Liebeck for her injuries claiming she didn’t take her pants off fast enough when the coffee spilled. It also argued that "Mrs. Liebeck's age may have caused her injuries to have been worse than they might have been in a younger individual," since older peoples skin is thinner.
  • During the case McDonald's own quality assurance manager was forced to admit that the Corporation was well aware of the risk of serving dangerously hot coffee, but stated the corporation still wasn’t going to do anything about it. 
  • Mrs. Liebeck was not driving the car at the time the coffee spilled on her. Actually she was seated in the front passenger seat and the car was stopped in the parking lot. She had the coffee between her knees and was attempting to take off the top so she could pour cream and sugar into it.
  • After careful deliberation, the jury found McDonald's liable because the jury believed McDonald's had engaged in willful, reckless and malicious conduct. The jurors rendered a punitive damage award of 2.7 million dollars against McDonald’s. (This was the equivalent of just two days of coffee sales, McDonalds Corporation generates revenues in excess of 1.3 million dollars daily from the sale of its coffee, selling 1 billion cups each year.)
  • When McDonald’s appealed, the judge lowered the award to $480,000. After paying her attorneys fees, costs and her medical bills, Mrs. Liebeck was left with very little.

Needless to say, the jury was mad at McDonald’s because of its callous attitude and total disregard for the safety of its customers.


The facts of this case are quite different than the stereotypical tale you hear about this case, “This lady spilled coffee on herself and become a millionaire.”


For more facts, go to any of these links:


Consumer Attorneys of California