Local case recalls the 1994 hot coffee "Mc Lawsuit"

By Marilyn Tennissen | May 2, 2007

A Jefferson County woman filed a lawsuit against McDonald's recently, claiming she was burned because their coffee was too hot.

The claim may sound familiar, and that is because a 1994 case on the same issue was a national topic of discussion around water-coolers and law classes alike.

Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, the "McDonald's coffee case," made headlines after a jury made an initial award to Liebeck of $2.9 million.

But over the past decade, many of the details of the case have become obscured in urban myth and political argument in the debate over tort reform.

On Feb. 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman from Albuquerque, N.M., ordered a 49 cent cup of coffee from the drive-thru of a local McDonald's restaurant.

Liebeck was in the passenger's seat of her Ford Probe, and her grandson parked the car so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Placing the coffee cup between her knees, she attempted to pull off the lid and in the process spilled the entire cup on her lap.

The woman was wearing cotton sweatpants, which absorbed the coffee, and she was scalded on her thighs, buttocks and groin.

Liebeck was taken to the hospital, where it was determined that she had suffered third-degree burns on 6 percent of her skin and lesser burns over 16 percent. She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent skin grafting.

Two years of treatment followed and Liebeck attempted to get McDonald's to pay for her $11,000 in medical expenses, but the company offered her $800.

Liebeck then hired Texas attorney Reed Morgan, who filed suit in a New Mexico District Court accusing McDonald's of "gross negligence" for selling coffee that was "unreasonably dangerous" and "defectively manufactured."

McDonald's refused several attempts at settlement before the case went to trial in 1994.

During the case, McDonald's gave attorneys its training and procedure manual, which says its coffee must be brewed at 195 to 205 degrees to release the full flavor of the beans and held at 180 to 190 degrees for optimal taste.

Morgan argued that coffee should never be served hotter than 140 degrees and that a number of other establishments served coffee at a substantially lower temperature than McDonald's.

The trial judge reduced the total award to $640,000, and the parties settled for a confidential amount before an appeal was decided.

Since then, the case has been debated on both sides of the tort reform issue.

Supporters of tort reform have said that the case is an example of a frivolous lawsuit and that McDonald's was not negligent for simply selling their coffee hot, the way their customers liked. They say the fact that McDonald's refused to settle reflected the company's belief that the suit had no merit, especially since several previous complaints over coffee burns had been dismissed by judges before ever going to trial.

Opponents of reform say the settlement was fair given the severity of Liebeck's injury and that McDonald's continued to insist that the coffee be served at such high temperatures even though more than 700 other people had made claims for scalding coffee burns in the previous 10 years.

The Jefferson County case, Katie Lacey vs. McDonald's, was filed in County Court at Law No. 1 on April 23.

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