Coffee Lawsuit Myths

In 1994, an Albequerque grandmother made headlines across the country when a jury awarded her over $2 million in damages after she was scalded by a cup of McDonalds coffee. The case has become a pop culture touchstone, shorthand for frivolous, litigious lawsuits brought by “money hungry” consumers. For almost fifteen years, Stella Leibeck has been ridiculed and held up as a prime example of the litigious American.

The reality is far different, and the McDonalds coffee case actually sparked a quiet reform in the fast food world that has made it safer for all commuters to have their morning coffee on the go.

Myth #1: The plaintiff was driving with the coffee between her knees.

In fact, the plaintiff was in the passenger seat of a car that was parked specifically to allow her to add cream and sugar to her coffee without spilling and splashing it on herself.

Myth #2: There was no warning on the coffee cup.

Actually, the cup was marked with a warning that the coffee was hot. The jury, however, felt that the warning was neither large enough nor obvious enough.

Myth #3: The plaintiff was not seriously injured.

This may be the cruelest of the myths making light of the coffee lawsuit. The truth is that 79 year old Stella Leibeck sustained third degree injuries over 6% of her body and lesser burns over another 16% of her body, and spent eight days in the hospital where she received multiple skin grafts. She also underwent two years of physical therapy after the accident. Her hospital bills came to more than $11,000.

Myth #4: The plaintiff was litigious and money hungry.

In 79 years, the plaintiff had never brought suit against anyone for anything. She only brought suit against McDonalds when they offered her $800 in compensation for her $11,000 medical bills, and refused to consider increasing their settlement offer.

Myth #5: What happened to Stella Leibeck was a freak accident.

Wrong again. In the ten years previous to Leibeck’s burn, McDonalds had received over 700 complaints about serious burns due to their hot coffee. A company quality control manager stated at the trial that 700 people was statistically equivalent to zero, and not significant enough for the company to reconsider their policy of holding coffee at 180 degrees F. Instead, their practice was to offer settlements to those who were injured, some of them as high as $500,000.

Myth #6: The only thing that came out of the case was a lot of lawyer jokes and a requirement to put a silly warning labeling coffee as hot.

While the warning labels did get larger after the case, it was not the only change made. Among the changes:

– Safer coffee lid and cup designs that make it far harder to spill an entire cup of coffee.
– Cups made out of more thermal materials. While Styrofoam and thermal foam keeps the coffee inside hotter for longer, it also insulates your fingers from the hot liquid inside.
– Cup sleeves as common practice.
– A new policy that holds true at nearly all fast food drive thrus – the server must cream and sugar your coffee if you request it. In fact, most restaurants no longer serve takeout coffee black with cream and sugar on the side.


  1. Actually, regarding myth #1, the driving part is the myth, but according to wikipedia she did have the coffee cup between her knees while she was sitting in the back seat of the car while it was parked.

  2. What idiot holds hot liquids between their legs while playing with it? Why not have the driver hold the cup or play with it on the dashboard? Sounds like an accident waiting to happen.

  3. I feel I should point something out about your fifth point as many seem to be making a similar assumption about these 700 complaints. This may seem like a large amount, but keep in mind that this was during a decade long period in which the company had sold tens of BILLIONS of cups of coffee. If you number crunch that, you have a better chance at being hit by lightning than seriously burning yourself on McDonald’s coffee.

    I would also like to point out that the 700 complaints included non-serious incidents as well, and were not all major injuries, as well as the fact that previous settlements including the $500,000 one were, in large part, due to a McDonald’s worker spilling the coffee or otherwise being at fault and not the injured party.

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