The Infamous, Wildly Misunderstood Hot Coffee Case

Andrew Sturgeon is a junior in the College, where he majors in Government and Psychology. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Andrew is an avid athlete, gym goer, and board game enthusiast. He is currently a Blog Writer for the Georgetown University Undergraduate Law Review.

In 1992, Stella Liebeck sued McDonald’s after suffering third-degree burns from spilled takeout coffee that she had ordered from the drive-through.[1] Now known as the “hot coffee case,” Liebeck’s action is chastised by many as an egregious example of a frivolous lawsuit. To an uninitiated observer, it may seem that Ms. Liebeck capitalized on a silly mistake to swindle the fast food giant out of millions.[2] How could somebody sue a franchise because the hot coffee they ordered was hot? However, the “hot coffee case” is as infamous as it is misunderstood. A thorough assessment of the case reveals that Liebeck was not a trickster but a victim, and McDonald’s was not innocent but rather egregiously culpable for Liebeck’s burns and subsequent suffering.

First, it is essential to define the verifiable facts of the case, as well as how they differ from the common narrative. On a February morning in 1992 Albuquerque, 79-year old widow Stella Liebeck sat in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car in the McDonald’s drive-thru ordering a meal. After receiving their food, along with one hot coffee, the two pulled into a parking spot to eat. These simple contextual facts already contradict the poisoned popular narrative, which often holds that Liebeck sat in the driver’s seat of a moving vehicle when she spilled her coffee due to negligence. In reality, Liebeck was in the passenger seat of a motionless vehicle. Since the car did not have cup holders, Liebeck placed her takeout cup in between her legs. While removing the lid to add cream and sugar, Liebeck spilled the coffee on her lap, sending her body into immediate shock and covering her thighs and pelvic area with third degree burns. Liebeck was immediately taken to a hospital where she remained for a week, undergoing multiple skin graft surgeries, debridement, and whirlpool therapy. Liebeck would continue to suffer from chronic pain and disability for the rest of her life. 

When Liebeck’s legal team demanded $20,000 to cover her medical expenses, McDonald’s countered, offering a mere $800 and sending the case to trial. Liebeck sued on the grounds that McDonald’s knowingly sold a defective product that violated the implied warranties of merchantability and fitness as per Sections 2-314 and 2-315 of the Uniform Commercial Code.[3] Under the implied warranty of merchantability, a vendor assumes liability for a defective product that cannot be used for its normal purpose.[4] As per the warranty of fitness, if a seller is cognizant of a buyer’s intended purpose for their product, the seller must guarantee that the product they sell is fit for such a purpose. 

As it applies to the case at hand, Liebeck’s claims were twofold: first, that she had been sold defective coffee that could not serve its expected or normal purpose, and second, that such a defect had caused her severe injury.

Despite popular belief, these claims were well-founded and backed by the facts of the case. Crucially, the coffee sold to Liebeck was not merely hot; it was scalding. As revealed by employee testimony, McDonald’s intentionally kept its coffee between 180 and 190º Fahrenheit. The sale of McDonald’s coffee at this temperature was no malfunction or mistake; it was the codified corporate standard. Experts noted that a mere second of contact with liquid at this temperature is sufficient to cause third degree burns.[5] Critically, McDonald’s could not plead ignorance to this biological fact. Prior to Liebeck’s accident, the fast food giant had already been made aware of over 700 unique incidents involving coffee induced burns over the previous decade.[6] McDonald’s own quality assurance manager testified that “at that high temperature the coffee is a hazard.”[7]

What, then, was the defense provided by McDonald’s for selling their coffee at such ludicrous, hazardous temperatures? The fast food giant offered two core rationalizations, though neither were particularly compelling. First, McDonald’s asserted that coffee at 190º Fahrenheit has a superior taste, and thus was serving its normal and expected purpose. But of what importance is the taste of a liquid that cannot safely be tasted? Testimony established that it is medically indisputable that coffee at this temperature is simply undrinkable. As such, its taste is irrelevant. Second, McDonald’s offered a familiar yet juvenile contention: hotness is an inextricable characteristic of hot coffee, and thus customers cannot sue on the grounds of its temperature. McDonald’s testified that market research had told them that customers “want hot coffee, they want it steamy hot, and they expect to get it that way.”[8] However, it would be preposterous to assert that a customer’s desire for heat trumps their desire for a safe, drinkable liquid. Further, such an argument disregards the wide range encompassed by the descriptor “hot.” Yes, coffee is typically hot, but so is the surface of the sun. Thus, the mere label of “hot”—with no further specification—is an entirely inadequate warning of the severe health hazard posed by a liquid at 190º Fahrenheit. Consumers simply cannot be reasonably expected to assume that “hot” really means “dangerously scalding.”

Unsurprisingly, the jury was not convinced of McDonalds’ rather hollow defense; the fast food giant failed to defend the merchantability and fitness of its product. Liebeck was awarded $2.86 million in damages, but the two parties later entered a post-verdict settlement for an undisclosed amount. 

The fast food giant would take swift but silent action upon conclusion of the case—just a day after the verdict, it was reported that the Albuquerque McDonald’s, where Liebeck suffered her injuries, was selling its hot coffee at a much safer 158º Fahrenheit. The cups were also labeled with a far more extensive and descriptive temperature warning

It would also quickly become evident that McDonald’s PR team was far better equipped than its legal department. The fast food giant wasted no time in embarking upon a thorough smear campaign aimed at excusing itself from culpability and painting Liebeck as the money-hungry villain. Over the next few months, through a calculated series of press releases and statements to the media, McDonald’s worked tirelessly to distort public perception of the fundamental facts of Liebeck’s case. Tragically, they were successful, and Liebeck was made the poster child of the “frivolous lawsuit” phenomenon. CBS News Anchor Andy Rooney remarked that the case was proof that “suing has become a popular American pastime.”[9] Following Liebeck’s passing, TIME Magazine sarcastically lamented that she “didn’t live to see the addition of iced coffee to the McDonald’s menu.”[10] As the media continued to mock a justified lawsuit, the facts of the case were quickly swept aside. Even lawmakers bought into such disinformation. Former Ohio Representative John Kasich argued that Liebeck’s case “in itself is enough to tell you why we need tort reform.”[11] Perhaps the most egregious example, columnist Randy Cassingham created the “Stella Awards” in Liebeck’s name, a book series dedicated to “ridiculous” and “bogus” cases.[12]

The true story is the one far less told. Judy Allen, Liebeck’s daughter, remarked that her mother had lost all quality of life following her injuries, and the settlement money merely paid for her medical bills and a live-in nurse. Yet Liebeck is continuously presented as a conniving tactician who exploited the legal system to “win big.” Ultimately, what could have been celebrated as an advancement of corporate accountability was instead chastised as a deplorable reflection of flaws in our legal system. Such a discrepancy cements this case as one of the most shameful stains on legal discourse.

[1] Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, 1995 WL 360309 (1994).

[2] Elizabeth Gam, Stella Liebeck vs. McDonald’s Restaurants, H2O (May 29, 2018),

[3] U.C.C §§ 2-314, 2-315

[4] Emilie McGuire & Jeffrey Skinner, The Coffee Case Revisited, ARENTFOX SCHIFF (Mar. 10, 2021),,spilled%20McDonald%27s%20coffee%20on%20herself.

[5] General Data About Burns, BURN CENTRE CARE,


[7] Kevin G. Cain, The McDonald’s Coffee Lawsuit, 11 J. Consumer & Com. L. 14 (2007).

[8] Greenlee, Kramer v. Java World, 26 CAP. U. L. REV. at 720-21. 

[9] Andy Simmons, Remember the Hot Coffee Lawsuit? It Changed the Way McDonald’s Heats Coffee Forever, READER’S DIGEST (Jul. 15, 2021),

[10] Top 10 Outrageous Legal Battles, TIME,,28804,1899500_1899502_1899510,00.html.

[11] Id.

[12] Randy Cassingham, All True Cases, STELLA AWARDS,


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