Liebeck v. McDonalds Restaurants: The Original Coffee Product Liability Case

As you know, we here at Abnormal Use love writing and blogging, so much so that our editor Jim Dedman is now contributing posts to other online venues.  Recently, his piece, “Liebeck v. McDonalds Restaurants: The Original Coffee Product Liability Case,” was published by DRI Today. Although the case is often discussed as one involving Ms. Liebeck’s potential contributory negligence (or lack thereof, depending upon your perspective), the article focuses on the case and the specific products liability claims asserted therein. Here’s the first two paragraphs of the article:

Back in 1994, Stella Liebeck v. McDonalds Restaurants became one of the most talked about lawsuits in American history. To this day, that New Mexico state court case is an essential component of any tort reform debate or discussion of litigation lore.  At that time, and to this day, the thought of a fast food drive-thru customer spilling coffee on herself in her vehicle and later recovering a punitive verdict of $2.7 million was simply too much for many members of the public. As we all know, the case became fodder for late night talk show hosts and later, Internet commentators, most of whom were relatively unfamiliar with the basic facts of the case. Over the years, the case has become part cautionary tale, part urban legend, and individuals seeking confirmation of even the most basic facts of the case have encountered great difficulty (in part because the case resulted in no formal appellate opinion setting forth its factual and procedural background).

In recent years, the trial lawyers, initially put on the defensive by the verdict and its ensuing publicity, have attempted to rehabilitate the reputation of the case, using the severity of Ms. Liebeck’s physical injuries as evidence of the lawsuit’s purported merit. Two years ago, trial lawyer turned filmmaker Susan Saladoff released Hot Coffee, an editorial documentary using the Liebeck case, and other cases of note, as examples of the purported evils of tort reform. To some degree, the success of the documentary, and the editorial coverage thereof, has prompted the public to rethink some of the issues of this case.  In said documentary, Saladoff stressed the McDonald’s policy of serving 180 to 190 degree coffee which, when spilled, could result in second and third degree burns like those Liebeck sustained more than two decades ago. However, reviewing the basic facts of the case and the legal issues in play, it is apparent, even two decades later, that the Liebeck case was questionable at best, frivolous at worst.

For the rest of the article, please see here.


  1. Pingback: Liebeck v. McDonald's, another round - Overlawyered

  2. Pingback: McDonald’s Coffee Case, 20 years Later — And Why It Is Still Important – New York Personal Injury Law Blog

  3. Let me jump right to your conclusion: “Just because a product can cause serious injury when handled negligently, does not mean that the product is unreasonably dangerous when and if used properly.”

    Indeed, but, conversely, just because a product is served in one context using industry guidelines designed for another context does not mean the product is reasonably safe as a matter of law. (Even in the same context wouldn’t be safe as a matter of law.)

    It’s one thing to set a 180 degree cup of coffee in a ceramic mug on a table; it’s another thing to hand one in a styrofoam cup to someone in a car. McDonald’s is in a vastly superior position to individual consumers to understand the risks of such a decision, and they chose to stay with the hottest temperature they could, despite numerous reports of burns. So they’re held responsible.

    As your own FAQ notes, in moving for summary judgment, McDonald’s did not contend that serving 180 degree coffee in a styrofoam cup to a person in a car was reasonably safe; rather, they contended that 130 degree coffee was just as dangerous as 180 degree coffee. It was a stupid argument that would fail an Elementary School science fair, and it was rightly rejected by the jury.