McDonald’s Hot Coffee and Other Myths

Rarely does a week pass without someone forwarding me an email complaining of “frivolous” lawsuits. You’ve probably seen them, too. They usually reference the so-called “Stella Awards,” in dubious honor of 79-year old Stella Liebeck. Stella was severely burned when scalding hot coffee spilled in her lap and she sued McDonald’s for $2.7 million. Most people hear only this and automatically assume it was a frivolous suit filed by a greedy plaintiff. Unfortunately, few seem to know the true facts about Stella’s case, such as:

  • Stella was severely injured, suffering third degree burns to her legs and genitals which required hospitalization and multiple skin grafts;
  • Her doctor testified that her injury was one of the worst scald burns he had ever seen;
  • She asked McDonald’s to simply pay for her medical treatment, but they refused;
  • McDonald’s kept its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees, a temperature which by its own admission made it unfit for consumption (hot beverages are typically served from 130 to 150 degrees);
  • Spilled coffee at that temperature causes third degree burns in 2 to 7 seconds;
  • McDonald’s had been aware of the risks of serving super-hot coffee for over 10 years;
  • Over 700 people had been burned previously by its coffee; and
  • The jury’s assessment of $2.7 million in punitive damages representing merely two days’ worth of McDonald’s coffee sales, and the trial judge reduced this amount to $480,000.

Sound frivolous? So the next time one of these emails pops up in your inbox, consider replying to the sender and giving them the real facts. After all, just like Stella Liebeck, that person may someday need a personal injury lawyer, too.