Hot Coffee Burns - Do You Know the Real Facts of the McDonald's Case?

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Hot Coffee Burns - Was the McDonald's Case Right?When people hear about the 1994 verdict of nearly three million dollars of punitive damages against McDonald’s over its hot coffee, many would think “runaway jury” or “jackpot justice.”  After all, isn’t coffee supposed to be hot?  However, here are some facts to consider before deciding your position[1]:

The 79-year-old plaintiff was a passenger in a car, stopped in a parking lot. She put the cup of coffee between her knees to remove the lid to add cream and sugar. The cup tipped over and spilled entire contents onto her lap. She suffered third-degree burns (the most serious kind) over sixteen percent of her body and required skin grafts on her inner thighs and other parts of her body. She initially offered to settle for $20,000 to cover her medical bills and lost income. McDonald’s never offered more than $800.

When the case went to trial, the evidence showed that McDonald’s required its coffee to be held at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit. Coffee at this temperature, if spilled, causes third-degree burns in three to seven seconds. McDonald’s knew of this danger for more than ten years. In fact, more than 700 injury cases, including third-degree burn injury cases, were reported to McDonald’s. Also, McDonald’s knew that coffee at this temperature was not fit for consumption as it would burn mouth and throat. Nonetheless, McDonald’s chose to keep the temperature to maintain optimum taste. McDonald’s found the number of burns to be insignificant compared to the billions of cups of coffee sold each year.

The jury verdict included $200,000 in compensatory damages, reduced to $160,000 as the jury found the plaintiff 20% at fault. The verdict also included $2.7 million in punitive damages, which equals about two days of McDonald’s coffee sales. However, the judge reduced the punitive damages by more than 80%.

These are some of the facts the jury got to hear during trial. How would you have decided when facing the giant corporation’s “callous disregard for the safety of the people?”  Would you have decided for McDonald’s, because more than 700 people are not enough to sacrifice the optimum taste of the coffee at 180 to 190 degrees?  I certainly hope not.

At Buckley & Associates, our personal injury attorneys help the victims of injury causing accidents to recover the compensation they need. If you or a loved one has been injured, please call Buckley & Associates today at (206) 622-1100. We serve clients throughout Seattle and Tacoma, Washington.


[1] Consumer Attorneys of California, The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case, available at https://www.caoc.org/?pg=facts; see also, Center for Justice & Democracy, New York City, McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case – Read the Facts NOT the Faction, available at https://www.ttla.com/index.cfm?pg=McDonaldsCoffeeCaseFacts; The 'Lectric Law Library
The Net's Finest Legal Resource For Legal Pros & Laypeople Alike, The Actual Facts about the McDonald’s Coffee Case, available at https://www.lectlaw.com/files/cur78.htm