In this video, Pennsylvania Personal Injury Lawyer Tim Rayne talks about The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case which is seen as the perfect example of a “frivolous lawsuit” where someone sues for no good reason and gets overpaid by a crazy Jury.  In reality, the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case was far from frivolous.  In fact it was an example of the opposite, an arrogant corporation that was punished for having unsafe policies that seriously  and needlessly injured many people.

Learn about the True Facts of The McDonald’s Hot Coffee case and see what you think then:

The True Facts of the McDonald’s Coffee Case

 In 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79 year-old woman, purchased a 49¢ cup of coffee from the drive-thru at the Albuquerque, New Mexico McDonald’s.  Stella was seated in the passenger seat and her grandson was driving.  They pulled over so that Stella could put cream and sugar in the coffee.

As Stella was fixing her coffee, it accidentally spilled into her lap.  Stella’s cotton sweatpants soaked up the coffee and, before she could remove them, Stella sustained severe burns to her thighs, buttocks and groin area.

Stella was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with third degree burns over 6 percent of her body and lesser burns on 16 percent of her body.  She was hospitalized for eight days, underwent surgical procedures to debride the wounds and apply skin grafts and suffered excruciating pain.  Stella had two years of medical treatment at a cost of over $11,000.

The following are the true facts regarding Stella’s lawsuit against McDonald’s:

  • Stella offered to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000, but McDonald’s only offered $800.
  • Stella sued McDonald’s for gross negligence.
  • At trial, the jury heard the following evidence:
  • McDonald’s enforced a franchise-wide policy of serving coffee at 185°F, plus or minus 5 degrees
  • Coffee at home is served at 135-140°F.
  • Coffee at 185°F is not fit for consumption because it will burn the mouth and throat
  • Coffee at 185°F will cause third degree burns after two to three seconds of exposure on the skin
  • Third degree burns do not heal without surgery and skin grafting, and they cause extreme pain and permanent scarring
  • From 1982 to 1992, McDonald’s received more than 700 complaints of people being burned by its coffee resulting in many third degree burns and numerous claims and lawsuits
  • McDonald’s had no intent to reduce the temperature of its coffee
  • McDonald’s earned approximately $1.35 million per day from coffee sales

The Result

 The jury reached a verdict which held McDonald’s negligent and 80 percent responsible for the accident and Stella negligent and 20 percent responsible.  The jury awarded compensatory damages of $200,000 (which was reduced by 20 percent to $160,000 to account for Stella’s 20 percent negligence).

The jury also awarded punitive damages of $2.7 million, which was equal to two days of coffee sales.

The trial judge reduced the punitive damage award to $480,000 (three times the compensatory damage award) making the total reduced award $640,000 ($180,000 compensatory and $480,000 punitive).

During the appeal, Stella and McDonald’s settled the case for an undisclosed sum which is believed to be less than $600,000.


 To me, the McDonald’s Coffee case should not have been the poster child for frivolous lawsuits and tort reform.  On the contrary, I see it as a shining example of how our court system can force wrongdoers to be held accountable for their actions.

Tim Rayne is a Personal Injury Lawyer with the Chester County Pennsylvania based law firm MacElree Harvey.  For over 25 years, Tim has been helping injured accident victims understand their legal rights and receive fair treatment from insurance companies.  Tim has law offices in Kennett Square and West Chester Pennsylvania.  Tim offers Free Consultations in his offices and also meets with clients in their homes.  Tim also offers Virtual Meetings via FaceTime or Zoom.  Contact Tim Rayne at or 610-840-0124 or visit Tim’s website.   

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