20 Years after the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case

The Facts

In 1992, Stella Liebeck, an elderly lady residing in the State of New Mexico spilled a hot cup of McDonald’s coffee on her pelvic region, sustaining severe injuries as a result, including third degree burns on 6 percent of her body. Following a period of intensive medical treatment, she launched a lawsuit against McDonald’s, seeking financial compensation for her injuries. She established her claim on the basis that her injuries were the result of negligence in the company’s design of its coffee-serving procedures.

Although some fault for the accident was apportioned to her, Liebeck was ultimately successful in her lawsuit. In its finding, the court considered, among other factors, McDonald’s policy of requiring coffee to be served at temperatures hotter than their competitors, and above standards recommended by industry experts.

Punitive damages in the millions were awarded because it was established that McDonald’s knew their coffee was causing burns, but they preferred to pay damages in each case, rather than reduce the temperature. Profits were more important than the burns suffered by their customers.

Legal Principles

At the heart of the McDonald’s case is the long-standing legal principle of “duty of care”. The modern notion of duty of care requires companies to have in mind the well-being of those who can be harmed by their products. While companies cannot be expected to avoid every potential injury, they are required to meet standards of reasonable conduct in upholding their duty.

Where a court finds that a company’s conduct failed to meet a reasonable standard, it could then be considered negligent, and liable to damages. Finding a company negligent is a fact-driven exercise however. Fault may not always be apparent immediately after an accident occurs.

Many of the important facts in the McDonald’s case, for instance, only emerged after the claim was registered and the legal process started. Consequently, it is widely advised that those injured in product-related accidents consult with legal counsel to assess whether they may have a viable claim.

The Fall-Out of the McDonald’s Case

As the NY Times notes in a story revisiting the McDonald’s coffee case, things have changed significantly since the lawsuit. Among other things, modern coffee cups are significantly sturdier, their lids more impressively engineered. Warning labels exist to caution coffee-drinkers, and sleeves are available to shield hands from the heat. Most importantly perhaps, the temperature of the beverages themselves are set and monitored more carefully now.

Despite improvements with coffee safety, the risk of an injury arising from negligently designed, manufactured or distributed products continues to exist in general. While each particular accident is unique, the courts continue to apply the duty of care principle, with a view to compensating the injured and to reducing similar incidents in the future.