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What Actually Happened To The Woman Who Sued McDonald's For Boiling Hot Coffee

Lena C
Writer

Is there anything that is better than that first sip of fresh coffee in the morning? It doesn't matter if you’re a latte drinker or the strong, bitter-black type, whether you add milk and sugar or drink, decaffeinated or not, there’s no question that coffee is stimulating and remarkably delicious. Plus, the smell just so damn good! 
There is just one group of coffee lovers that you may find hard to understand, they are the boiling hot coffee lovers. The ones that request coffee that is too hot to drink, risking you with severe burns in the case of a spillage. 
It makes perfect sense then, that there are warning labels on coffee cups but as it turns out, the labels are clearly not enough.

We all remember the story about a woman who sued McDonald's and received $2.7 million in punitive damages, because of their hot coffee, but the story goes much deeper than what you'd expect. 
Let's dive in and truly understand what happened there because her story is truly remarkable. 

Many people assumed this woman was suing McDonald's for millions after some coffee spilled on her lap is a silly claim, but are they correct?

Many people assumed this woman was suing McDonald's for millions after some coffee spilled on her lap is a silly claim,  but are they correct?

This lawsuit may have looked petty, but this was not actually the case. 

The incident occurred back in 1992 when 79-year-old Stella Liebeck was sitting in the back seat of her son's car. While some blamed her for drinking coffee mid-driving, this was not the case, as she was not driving at all.

The incident occurred back in 1992 when 79-year-old Stella Liebeck was sitting in the back seat of her son's car. While some blamed her for drinking coffee mid-driving, this was not the case, as she was not driving at all.

Her son pulled the car over so she could add some cream and sugar to her cup of coffee. 

The old lady placed the cup between her knees to free her hands. While trying to remove the lid, the cup tipped over and was spilled on her lap.

The old lady placed the cup between her knees to free her hands. While trying to remove the lid, the cup tipped over and was spilled on her lap.

The problem was the difference between hot and boiling hot coffee. Her cup was not supposed to be served at boiling hot temperatures, yet it was. 

Her coffee spillage caused her severe burns to her legs: 3rd degree burns from a cup of coffee. This is the worst burns you can receive and your body will not be able to recover the damaged skin.

Her coffee spillage caused her severe burns to her legs: 3rd degree burns from a cup of coffee. This is the worst burns you can receive and your body will not be able to recover the damaged skin.

You guys are welcome to google "3rd-degree burns" because we are not going to (it looks horrible, trust us), They result in white or blackened, charred skin harming the deep layers of the skin, and even affecting muscles, nerves, tenders, and bones. The coffee was so hot, that the pants Stella wore got stuck into the burned skin. 

McDonald's prides itself on prevalent customer service. Furthermore, in 1992, that implied serving hot drinks that would remain hot after an extensive drive to work or back home.

McDonald's prides itself on prevalent customer service. Furthermore, in 1992, that implied serving hot drinks that would remain hot after an extensive drive to work or back home.

The corporate approach was to keep the coffee in the vicinity of 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit. To give some point of view, the coffee you make at your house is at around 135 or 140 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature difference is so important, this explains why most of your coffee spills did not result in severe 3rd-degree burns. 

At 180 to 190 degrees, hot drinks can cause severe skin damage in less than 3 seconds.

At 180 to 190 degrees, hot drinks can cause severe skin damage in less than 3 seconds.

We know that coffee is supposed to be served hot, but there is a difference between hot and dangerously hot. The poor old woman ended up being hospitalized for 8 days and had to undergo skin grafts to replace her dead, burned skin. She was also at high risk of infection caused by the burns. 

As if Stella was not in bad shape already, it turns out she did not have insurance, and her medical bills after one week were over $20,000.

As if Stella was not in bad shape already, it turns out she did not have insurance, and her medical bills after one week were over $20,000.

As crazy as it sounds, after that horrible ordeal McDonald's offered her the sum of $800 to cover her expenses and for the experience. 

So almost dying, getting severe 3rd-degree burns that needed grafts, enormous amounts of pain and $20,000 dollars of medical bills and this is what they offered? She decided to sue them!

So almost dying, getting severe 3rd-degree burns that needed grafts, enormous amounts of pain and $20,000 dollars of medical bills and this is what they offered? She decided to sue them!

In her lawsuit, her lawyers claimed McDonald's had known the danger of selling their coffee boiling hot for over 10 years but they still decided to ignore this problem.

In her lawsuit, her lawyers claimed McDonald's had known the danger of selling their coffee boiling hot for over 10 years but they still decided to ignore this problem.

Her case was just one in 700 in the sum of 10 years. With thousands of customers complaining that the coffee is too hot (this is also burning the coffee and ruining its tase) but the company did the math. It was more profitable to pay these settlements than to lower the coffee's temperature. 

McDonald's quality assurance manager could not deny that at that temperature in styrofoam cups, the coffee can cause severe burns and that it should not be deemed fit for consumption.

McDonald's quality assurance manager could not deny that at that temperature in styrofoam cups, the coffee can cause severe burns and that it should not be deemed fit for consumption.

"Reckless, callous, and willful." is what the judge conducted after hearing both sides.

The jury ruled against McDonald's very quickly. "The facts were so overwhelmingly against the company," said one juror. "They were not dealing with their customers' safety."The jury granted Stella $2.7 million, which added up to around two days of what McDonald's make just by selling coffee.

The damages changed afterward to the sum of $480,000 but in the end, the lawsuit was settled outside the court with a settlement behind closed doors, its terms were never disclosed to anyone.

The damages changed afterward to the sum of $480,000 but in the end, the lawsuit was settled outside the court with a settlement behind closed doors, its terms were never disclosed to anyone.

So next time you see one of these warning labels telling you to be careful, keep in mind that they may not hold in court and if anything happens to you, this is a risk the company was willing to take at your own expense.  

Share this article with all your coffee(and tea) addicted friends because they need to know this as well!