Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants (1994)

  Tags: law   hot coffee case   mcdonalds


From the wikipedia:

Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, also known as the "McDonald's coffee case," is a 1994 product liability lawsuit that became a flashpoint in the debate in the U.S. over tort reform after a jury awarded $2.86 million to a woman who burned herself with hot coffee she purchased from fast food restaurant McDonald's. The trial judge reduced the total award to $640,000, and the parties settled for a confidential amount before an appeal was decided. The case entered popular understanding as an example of frivolous litigation; ABC News calls the case the poster child of excessive lawsuits.

Prior Knowledge

McDonald's had knowledge of over 700 claims of people burned by it's coffee between 1982 and 1992.[1]
McDonald's said it served coffee at 180-190 degrees for optimum taste.[1]
Other establishments sell coffee at substantially lower temperatures, and coffee served at home is generally 135 to 140 degrees.[1]

Physical Evidence

Liebeck had full thickness burns (or 3rd degree burns) over 6% of her body and was hospitalized for 8 days where she underwent skin grafting.[1]

Expert Analysis

An expert on thermodynamics applied to human skin burns testified that liquids at 180 degrees cause a full thickness burn to human skin in 2 to 7 seconds.[1]
Other testimony showed that as the temperature decreases toward 155 degrees, the extent of the burn relative to that temperature decreases exponentially. Thus, if Liebeck's spill had involved coffee at 155 degrees, the liquid would have cooled and given her time to avoid a serious burn.[1]

Was the ruling right?

Arguments For

Yes, it was the right ruling

It was wrong for McDonald's to serve scalding hot coffee at 180 degrees that can scientifically cause 3rd degree burns.

Is there an existing law that says product manufacturers must warn consumer's of the dangers of it's products?

Even if you make the case that "everyone knows coffee is hot" there should be exceptions made when a product is significantly more dangerous than the typical. We know a knife can slice and hurt, but a knife that can also shatter and severely hurt the person (under proper use) and the manufacturer is aware of this defect, the manufacturer should be responsible.

Arguments Against

No, it was the wrong ruling

Frivolous Lawsuit

It is common sense to know that coffee is hot. We know that knifes are sharp, that guns can kill, and that you can drown in an inch of water. McDonald's had no intent of harming it's customers and the dangers of the product should be the responsibility of the customers to find out and avoid.

The customer could have asked McDonald's what temperature the coffee is served at and could have done research to learn the temperatures at which liquid is scalding and dangerous.

There is no doubt that McDonald's knew the product was dangerous, but the customers knew that as well. If the market demanded safer, cooler coffee then such coffee would have been sold instead anyways. Buyer beware should stand in this case.


 1  The Actual Facts about the McDonald's Coffee Case

User Comments & Opinion


1 Voted Yes

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I think that it was the right ruling. If a product is as dangerous as the typical similar product, there shouldn't be much responsibility on the manufacturer/company that produces it. But in this case, McDonald's willfully sold coffee far more dangerous than other stores. McDonald's should have performed safety testing. A consumer should not have to probe each company to learn if their product is exceedingly dangerous than the typical similar product.

Impact on society: I am also somewhat against the ruling. If might be more advantageous to society if McDonald's won the case and congressional pressure by the general public such that a safety law for "exceedingly dangerous products". Instead, we end up with frivolous law suits and obvious warning labels - which are not always read by consumers anyways. - thorie (twitter) 0

1 Voted No

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No, it is coffee, it is hot. You would be able to feel if it was hotter than usual through the cup. And are we sure she didnt spill it on herself purposefully. If I sell you a knife and you trip and fall onto one leaving the shop i am not viable for your actions. - _fraz_ (twitter) vote up image vote down image 0
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