Coffee Burns

In 1992, 79 year old Stella Liebeck bought a cup of coffee from a McDonald’s in New Mexico, spilled it on her lap, suffered multiple third-degree burns, and required skin grafts on her inner thighs and elsewhere. She subsequently sued McDonald’s.

Although the jury found Liebeck to be partly responsible for her injuries, based on evidence that McDonald’s coffee was unreasonably hot and had caused other injuries in the past, the jury decided to award Stella the equivalent of two days’ worth of coffee sales revenue for the entire restaurant chain. Some of the evidence presented at the trial includes:

1) An engineer from the University of Texas and the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation both testified that the risk of harm from the coffee was unacceptable.

2) An expert witness testified that the number of burns the coffee caused was insignificant compared to the number of cups of coffee sold every year.

3) A McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that the coffee at the serving temperature was not fit for consumption because it would burn the throat.

4) After several other similar lawsuits, McDonald’s knew about the risk of serious burns from its coffee, but did not warn customers of the risk.