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McDonalds Coffee Case – The Truth

Many are familiar with the McDonalds Coffee case, in which the fast food giant was sued after a 79-year-old woman, Stella Liebeck, was burned from coffee purchased at an Albuquerque McDonalds. In many ways, this case has been one of the representations of the idea of a frivolous lawsuit in which a suit is filed against a company or individual that has no real merit to stand on, other than to seek after monetary funds; however, research into the case will also showcase the need for this kind of case to have been filed in the first place.

As mentioned, Ms. Liebeck was a passenger in her grandson’s car when the two ordered from a McDonald’s drive-thru. Lieback ordered coffee, which was served in a Styrofoam cup. One of the misconceptions, according to gathered research, is that Lieback had been driving the car or that the car was in motion – causing the Styrofoam to be handled in such a way that it would be inadvertently damaged, causing the injuries.

However, this is not the case. Liebeck had her grandson pull over so that she could then add cream and sugar to the coffee. In order to do this, she placed the cup between in her knees to steady it and then removed the top.

When she did so, the cups entire contents then spilled onto her lap, which then caused full thickness, or third-degree, burns over 6% of her body. These injuries were made significantly worse because of the sweatpants Liebeck was wearing, which caused the hot coffee to become absorbed, which subsequently held it next to her skin. As one can imagine, these injuries were not only severe, but also caused additional complications as well.

The research points out that Liebeck was hospitalized for eight days where she had to undergo skin grafting. In addition, Liebeck also had to undergo several rounds of debridement treatments.

Originally, Liebeck sought to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000, however McDonalds refused, which resulted in the infamous court case. During discovery it was also revealed that McDonalds not had their coffee temperature at 180 – 190 degrees when typically coffee served at home would be 135 – 140 degree, but documents also revealed claims of approximately 700 individuals that have been burned in some degree by McDonald’s coffee.

The temperature of the coffee is essential to note because expert testimony indicates that, had the coffee been set at 155 degrees, the burns would have been less serious. What this information works to show is that not only did the company know that there were potential problems in the temperature and delivery of its coffee, but that the company failed to act in order to prevent these problems from occurring.


The jury awarded $160,000 in actual damages and 2.7 million in punitive damages, which award was reduced by the trial judge to $640,000. Later the case was settled for a confidential amount.

Although there are many different opinions that surround the fault of the company and the damages for the unfortunate incident, one must also remember that the incidents did not occur at random, but because of lack of corporate oversight.

While the “spilled coffee” case stands for frivolous lawsuits, the facts when known, show otherwise.