Search Site
The Real Story: McDonald’s Scalding Coffee Case

Understanding the Nature of a National Case

How Stella Liebeck changed the way we view corporations

When Americans first heard about “the woman who sued McDonalds because her hot coffee was too hot,” many thought the case was a joke.  But then as details emerged, attorneys all over the country took notice.  The Liebeck case had the potential to change how the civil justice system worked.

What happened to Stella Liebeck?

Stella Liebeck lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In February 1992, she was seated in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car when she was severely burned by McDonald’s coffee. The coffee was purchased from the drive through window of a local McDonald’s.

After receiving their order, Stella’s grandson pulled his car into a parking space so that Stella could add cream and sugar to her coffee (Critics of civil justice often claim that Stella was driving the car or that the vehicle was in motion when she spilled the coffee; neither is true). Stella placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup. As Stella removed the lid, the entire contents of the cup spilled into her lap.

Stella suffered terrible burns. The sweatpants Stella was wearing absorbed the coffee and held it next to her skin. A vascular surgeon determined that Stella suffered full thickness burns (or third-degree burns) over six percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. Stella was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting.

Stella also underwent debridement treatments (removal of dead tissue, foreign bodies, and poorly healing tissue from a wound). Stella originally asked McDonald’s to pay $20,000 to help pay for her medical bills, but McDonald’s refused. Instead of taking responsibility for their actions by accepting this reasonable settlement offer, McDonald’s forced a jury of fellow New Mexicans to take time out of their lives to come to Court. The jury’s job was to listen to the evidence and decide if McDonald’s shared responsibility for the terrible injuries Stella suffered.

What did the Jury learn about McDonald’s at the Trial?

McDonald’s already knew there was a problem with its coffee causing serious burns to many its customers before Stella’s injury. McDonald’s was forced to tell the jury that more than 700 of its customers had presented claims related to being burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some of the injuries involved third-degree burns, substantially similar to those suffered by Stella. This proved McDonald’s knew about nature of this hazard and that it was not an isolated incident.

McDonald’s said a consultant advised the company to keep the temperature of the coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain optimum taste. Other restaurants were selling their coffee at substantially lower temperatures. Coffee served at home is generally 135 to 140 degrees. The consultant admitted that he never evaluated the safety ramifications at this temperature. Further, McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that the company actively enforced a requirement that coffee be held in the pot at 185 degrees, plus or minus five degrees. The quality assurance manager also testified that a burn hazard exists with any food substance served at 140 degrees or above. Last, he admitted that McDonald’s coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into Styrofoam cups, was not fit for human consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat. Even after admitting that burns would occur, but the quality assurance manager testified at trial that McDonald’s had no intention of reducing the “holding temperature” of its coffee.

A scholar in thermodynamics applied to human skin burns also testified about safe temperatures. He told the jury that liquids that measure 180 degrees will cause a full thickness burn to human skin in two to seven seconds. Other testimony showed that as the temperature decreases toward 155 degrees, the extent of the burn relative to that temperature decreases exponentially. Thus, if Stella’s spill had involved coffee at 155 degrees, the liquid would have cooled and given her time to avoid serious burns. McDonald’s asserted that customers buy coffee on their way to work or home, intending to consume it there. However, the company’s own research showed that customers intend to consume the coffee immediately while driving. McDonald’s also argued that consumers know coffee is hot and that its customers want it that way. The company admitted its customers were unaware that they could suffer third degree burns from the coffee. McDonald’s also admitted that a statement on the side of the cup was not a “warning,” just a “reminder” as the location of the writing would not warn customers of the hazard.

The jury decided $200,000 would compensate Stella for medical bills and the painful treatments she was forced to endure. This amount was reduced to $160,000 because the jury also thought Stella was 20 percent at fault for the spill. The jury also told McDonald’s to pay $2.7 million in punitive damages. Punitive damages are very rare. Punitive damages are meant to punish a company for reckless conduct.  $2.7 million equaled about two days of McDonald’s coffee sales.

After the verdict, an investigation found that the temperature of coffee at the local Albuquerque McDonald’s had dropped to 158 degrees Fahrenheit. The trial court subsequently reduced the punitive award to $480,000 — or three times compensatory damages — even though the judge called McDonald’s conduct reckless, callous and willful.

No one will ever know the final ending to this case. Despite the fact that this case was litigated in public and subjected to extensive media reporting, McDonald’s required Stella to agree to a secret settlement. This prevented Stella and her attorneys from discussing anything about McDonald’s conduct. Secret settlements should not be condoned. The civil justice system can be successful at completely eliminating some dangers to the public (for example, children’s pajamas are no longer flammable). Secret settlements cause the opposite effect – only serving the purpose of helping a company hide the dangers of its bad conduct from the public.

Speak to a proven New Jersey attorney now
Call 856.238.5183 or click to schedule your consultation
  • 5-Star Review

    Posted On

    "We came to the office upset, concerned and profoundly unsure of what to do. Mr. Hoffman sat with us, explained options, reassured us and told us he would be there for us. He more than delivered on that commitment. If you are considering a legal firm, go no further, Hoffman-DiMuzio needs to be your choice."

  • 5-Star Review

    Posted On

    " Joe Hoffman is amazing. We cannot say enough about how well we were treated from the moment we sat down until the positive resolution! Stellar customer experience!"

  • 5-Star Review

    By Renee Zagarella

    "Wonderful, knowledgeable, kind, and informative! Within days following my free consultation, I was provided with an overview of my appointment with helpful information about my case. I truly appreciate the recommendation I was given at this firm."

  • 5-Star Review

    By Anita Campana

    "I was so very impressed with Hoffman DiMuzio from the moment I walked in. Everyone I had come across was so professional and courteous."

  • 5-Star Review

    By Mike W

    "Hoffman DiMuzio is a top notch firm. Their attorneys and staff are extremely knowledgeable and go above and beyond for you. I recommend them to everyone in need of legal service."

  • 5-Star Review

    By Harry McCormick

    When my significant other was falsely accused of committing a crime, there was only one place to turn. that place was hoffman dimuzio.

  • 5-Star Review

    Posted On Google

    "Joe Hoffman Jr took on our case and fought tooth and nail for us. Exposing the truth and serving justice for us, we felt completely vindicated. For any legal matter, criminal, traffic or otherwise, they gained two very satisfied life long customers! Thank you Mr Hoffman!"

Joseph J.  Hoffman, Jr. Attorney Photo
Joseph J. Hoffman, Jr.
Senior Partner

For more than 40 years, Mr. Hoffman has protected the interest of his clients through diligence and hard work on legal matters, both large and small. An honors graduate of Rutgers University Law School and a native of Gloucester County, Mr. Hoffman has won numerous accolades for excellence in the practice of law.

Kenneth A. DiMuzio, Sr. Attorney Photo
Kenneth A. DiMuzio, Sr.
Senior Partner

An attorney with over 45 years of professional experience, Mr. DiMuzio concentrates his practice on personal injury and workers’ compensation matters. A graduate of Georgetown University Law School and a native of Gloucester County, Mr. DiMuzio has been honored time and again for his professionalism and ethics in the practice of law.

Ernest L.  Alvino, Jr. Attorney Photo
Ernest L. Alvino, Jr.

Ernest L. Alvino, Jr. About Ernest L. Alvino, Jr. concentrates his practice in the area of workplace injuries; construction accidents; product injuries; trucking accidents; auto injuries; medical negligence and crime victim advocacy. Ernie is a lifelong Gloucester County resident, living in Mullica Hill with his wife and children. Ernie worked his way through school as…

Anooshay Asim Attorney Photo
Anooshay Asim

About Anooshay Asim Ms. Anooshay Asim is a family law attorney with The Law Offices of Hoffman DiMuzio. Her practice is focused on divorce and child custody matters. Prior to joining Hoffman DiMuzio, Ms. Asim was an avid traveler and had even lived in numerous cities across the United States as well as internationally. Her…

Jeremiah J. Atkins Attorney Photo
Jeremiah J. Atkins

Jeremiah J. Atkins About Mr. Atkins joined the firm of Hoffman DiMuzio in February 2010. Mr. Atkins’ practice covers a wide variety of employment-related matters before New Jersey State and Federal courts and administrative agencies, with a focus on discrimination, retaliation, sexual harassment, family leave and whistleblowing claims. Mr. Atkins also regularly represents the interests…

  • Imagine... One law firm, for life.

    New Jersey attorneys for all legal matters

    For all life's stages. For all South Jersey.

Six convenient locations

We'll meet at the office nearest you

  • Franklinville
    Lawyers Near Franklinville
  • Turnersville
    Lawyers Near Turnersville
  • Mullica Hill
    Lawyers Near Mullica Hill
  • Woodbury
    Lawyers Near Woodbury
  • Sewell
    Lawyers Near Sewell
  • Philadelphia
    Philadelphia Office
  • AV Preeminent
    Top Attorneys NJ
    Best Lawyer Award
    Best Trial Lawyers
  • AV Preeminent
  • Best Attorneys NJ
  • Best Lawyer Award
  • Best Trial Lawyers
Take action now by filling out the form below

Submitting this form does not create an attorney-client relationship, but a lawyer from our firm will contact you as soon as possible.

Quick Contact Form