McDonald’s Coffee Cup Change: Good for the Environment or Potential Legal Fodder?

Last week, McDonald’s announced it was switching from polystyrene (aka Styrofoam) to double-walled paper cups for hot beverages in all of its restaurants. The move is made in response to changing consumer preferences and an increase in environmental consciousness. There’s nothing wrong with that, we suppose. However, whenever McDonald’s acts, it seems as if someone is there to tell us that it is bad. If you are asking why this is reportable news, then let us catch you up on the last 20 years of legal pop culture. For starters, McDonald’s coffee cups (and its coffee) are no strangers to publicity. Ever since Stella Liebeck infamously spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee into her lap back in 1992, McDonald’s coffee has been parodied in major television shows such as “Seinfeld” and has been the cover story of an HBO documentary on the civil justice system. Always a topic of debate among lawyers and non-lawyers alike, it should come as no surprise that when the fast food chain announced a change in material for its hot beverage containers, the news sent the interwebs into a flutter.

The major significance of the announcement is not the reasons for the change, but rather the effect the change may have on future litigation. Inevitably, someone will spill coffee from one of the new cups onto himself and claim that the spill would not have occurred but for the double-walled paper construction. While we have no idea whether there is a financial difference between paper and polystyrene, we wouldn’t be surprised to see an argument in the future that McDonald’s is sacrificing consumer safety in favor of increased profit margins. Such an argument is likely a complete farce, ignoring the valid reasons behind the change. Unfortunately, this is the climate in which McDonald’s and other businesses face.

The environmental impact of a switch away from polystyrene cannot be understated. Given the billions of cups of coffee sold by McDonald’s, the impact is significant. Nonetheless, any change, albeit a good one, made by McDonald’s regarding its coffee production, will undoubtedly find its way into the allegations of a complaint. Remember, you heard it here first.


  1. A lawyer’s reward for filing and pursuing a lawsuit s/he should know a duly elected or appointed judge is ultimately going to throw out as without merit is financial failure, sooner rather than later. If some lawsuits you don’t like survive dismissal or summary judgment, why not complain about the standards courts apply when deciding which cases are worthy of survival instead of blaming greedy trial lawyers? Some of our best minds work very hard at setting those standards, and we’re all free to like, dislike or try to influence them — as the insurance industry has done with great success. Plaintiff lawyers are in it to make a living, just like defense lawyers. Defense lawyers, like plaintiff lawyers, take on clients and assess strategies based on opportunity for success and for getting paid, not whether potential clients are on the high side of any moral or societal standard. No one calls a defense lawyer greedy for representing a client who is sued for conduct that is legally or morally indefensible. And unlike the usual plaintiff lawyer, if the defense lawyer is ultimately unsuccessful s/he’s generally exempt from the threat of not only not getting paid but losing the money spent on case prep.

  2. Steve,

    I appreciate your comments. My intent in drafting this piece was not to blame lawyers or plaintiffs. It was more of a global examination of the system with hot coffee litigation as a focal point. A plaintiff’s lawyer certainly would not be exercising his or her due diligence by not exploring all possible avenues of liability. Unfortunately, whether meritorious or not, this issue will ultimately come forward.