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Personal Injury Hot Coffee

On February 27, 1992, 79 year old Stella Liebeck went through a McDonald’s drive-thru with her nephew. She was sitting in a parked car attempting to add sweetener to her coffee and was forced to place the cup between her legs. When Stella removed the lid to her cup, the coffee spilled onto her legs, absorbed into her sweatsuit and pooled into the seat she was sitting in. She immediately experienced personal injury and went into shock.

She was diagnosed with burns over 16% of her body, mostly affecting her groin and inner legs. 6% of that area was covered in third degree burns. Her daughter wrote McDonald’s requesting payment of medical bills totaling $10,000.00. McDonald’s responded with an offer of $800.00 in compensation.

With the help of a personal injury attorney, she attempted settling to resolve the matter. She had never been involved in a personal injury lawsuit previously and wanted to ensure no one else endured the horrible burns she did. The matter proceeded to trial and many experts were hired to assess the temperature of the coffee. The following facts were determined:

  • Coffee was brewed at 180-190 degrees to ensure maximum profit by yielding more coffee
  • At this temperature, personal injury and third degree burns would occur in less than 15 seconds
  • From 1983-1992, nearly 700 others sustained personal injury from burns from McDonald’s coffee
  • Normal occurrences of burns from coffee are approximately 1 in 24 Million, based on McDonald’s sales should be about 41 per year

The case results were actually grossly misrepresented by the media. The actual award timeline is as follows:

  • Jury awards Mrs. Liebeck $200,000.00 in damages, which was reduced to $160,000.00 due to her causing the spill
  • Jury awards her $2.7 Million in punitive damages (Equal to 2 days of McDonald’s coffee sales) due to the fact McDonald’s was on notice of 700 other personal injury occurrences from their coffee
  • Judge reduces the punitive damages award to $680,000.00 which was appealed by McDonald’s
  • The actual personal injury settlement Mrs. Liebeck received was less than $500,000.00

Mrs. Liebeck could not publicly speak about the amount she received for her personal injury as a term of settlement. The media inaccurately reported about her case making her out to be a villain. She had no opportunity to defend herself, being barred by the terms of settlement.

The fact that McDonald’s knowingly sold it’s customers coffee that was dangerously hot, according to experts, is cold callous negligence. In fact, when advised of the other 700 burns during the study from 1983-1992, a spokesperson for McDonald’s told the Liebecks her personal injury was “statistically insignificant.”

If sustaining burns over 16% of your body is “statistically insignificant,” just what type of personal injury would be significant?


The St. Louis personal injury attorneys at Kullmann, Klein & Dioneda have represented thousands of personal injury victims for over 25 years. We can assure you that we will fight for what you deserve and will not let corporations or insurance companies bully you.

We offer serious help for your serious personal injury.