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The McDonald’s Coffee Burn Case: A Landmark in Product Liability

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The McDonald’s Coffee Burn Case: A Landmark in Product Liability

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The McDonald’s Coffee Burn Case: A Landmark in Product Liability

Brubaker Injury Law

January 9, 2024


The infamous Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants case, commonly known as the “McDonald’s coffee case,” remains etched in legal history as a pivotal moment in product liability litigation. The seemingly innocuous incident involving a spilled cup of coffee led to severe injuries, a high-profile lawsuit, and a nationwide debate on tort reform. Let’s delve into the details of this case and the severity of the injuries suffered by the plaintiff.

The Incident

In 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman, ordered a 49-cent cup of coffee from a McDonald’s drive-through in Albuquerque, New Mexico. While sitting in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car, she attempted to add cream and sugar to her coffee. In the process, she accidentally spilled the scalding-hot coffee on her lap. The consequences were devastating.

Severity of the Injuries

Stella Liebeck endured third-degree burns over 16 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, genitals, and buttocks. The skin was burned away to the layers of muscle and fatty tissue. To put it in perspective:

  • Third-degree burns are the most serious and painful type, affecting all layers of the skin.
  • The intense heat caused irreversible damage, leaving Stella with excruciating pain and long-lasting physical trauma.
  • Her injuries required extensive medical treatment, including skin grafting and debridement (removal of dead tissue).

Legal Battle

Stella Liebeck sought to settle with McDonald’s for a modest $20,000 to cover her medical expenses. When McDonald’s refused, her attorney filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, accusing McDonald’s of gross negligence. The central argument was that McDonald’s coffee, served at 180–190°F (82–88°C), was dangerously hot and more likely to cause serious injury than coffee served at any other establishment.

The Verdict

The jury found McDonald’s 80 percent responsible for the incident. They awarded Stella Liebeck:

  • Compensatory damages: A net amount of $160,000 to cover medical expenses.
  • Punitive damages: An astonishing $2.7 million (equivalent to $5.3 million today), representing two days’ worth of McDonald’s coffee sales.

The trial judge later reduced the punitive damages to three times the compensatory amount, totaling $640,000. The case settled for a confidential amount before an appeal was decided.

Impact and Controversy

The Liebeck case became a flashpoint in the U.S. tort reform debate. Some viewed it as an example of frivolous litigation, while others saw it as a meaningful lawsuit highlighting corporate responsibility. Regardless of opinions, Stella Liebeck’s injuries were real, severe, and life-altering.


The McDonald’s coffee burn case serves as a reminder that product safety and consumer protection matter. It underscores the need for companies to balance their responsibilities toward customers with the pursuit of profits.

At Brubaker Injury Law, we’re here to help you navigate the complexities of your personal injury case. If you’ve been injured in an accident, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We’re here for you.

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