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Can Scalding Coffee Cause Critical Injuries?

Posted on : September 19, 2015

A majority of people know about the 1992 McDonald’s “hot coffee” case, where the fast food giant was sued for injury to a woman after their scalding hot coffee caused serious burns. The award neared $2.7 million in punitive penalties; however, California courts lowered the amount to just under $500,000. The final settlement was made private and not revealed to the public. Media reports failed to show how critical the injuries were and as a result, people became outraged at a potential multi-million dollar settlement over coffee. How serious are injuries caused by scalding coffee and do coffee injuries still happen today?

The First “Hot Coffee” Case

Stella Liebeck ordered a piping hot McDonald’s coffee in 1992 through the drive-thru and set the coffee cup in her lap to remove the lid. The contents of the cup spilled onto her lap and the fabric of her pants trapped the hot liquid against her skin, causing critical third-degree burns over 6% of her body. Coffee at home is typically brewed at about 135-140 degrees; however, McDonald’s serves their coffee at a scalding 180-190 degrees so that it has a longer shelf life. Liebeck stayed in the hospital for eight¬†days, during which she received debridement and skin grafts.

The media’s failure to report the true nature of Liebeck’s injuries caused a sensation, because the general public couldn’t believe that a woman could possibly receive a multi-million dollar settlement after spilling a little coffee on her lap. The media coverage did not report on the severity of the injuries, nor did they report that Liebeck originally desired just a $20,000 settlement, which McDonald’s refused.

Are People Still Being Injured?

McDonald’s put a warning on all of their coffee cups about the coffee being hot, but one might think that the high punitive damages in the Liebeck case would make the company think twice about serving coffee that was dangerously hot. In 2013, California resident Joan Fino was injured in the same way as Liebeck — the coffee cup was placed in her lap and spilled, burning her groin area significantly. Surprisingly, after the Liebeck lawsuit, McDonald’s only reduced the temperature of their coffee 10 degrees.


Fino’s lawyer, Nicolas Wager, has an idea. He suggests to the Huffington Post that: “They are saving more in production costs in brewing coffee and serving at such high temperature than it costs them to settle the cases with these people who have been injured.”

When a company knowingly serves products that have been proven dangerous and pays out injury claims without a second thought, because they save more money that way than they do by changing the way their products are served, settlements in the multi-million dollar range seem a lot less frivolous.

Were You Hurt by a Dangerous or Defective Product? Call an Attorney Now

People are harmed by dangerous or defective products often. If you or someone you love were injured by such a product, the designer, manufacturer, or distributor of the product should be held responsible for their carelessness or negligence. At Chalker Injury Law, we can assist you in getting the restitution you need for your medical costs and help stop negligent practices by corporations and companies. Call now for a consultation at (678) 319-9991.

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