The Real Details of the Hot Coffee Lawsuit

Getty Images
Getty Images

Any time you find yourself in an argument about frivolous lawsuits and tort reform, someone’s probably going to bring up “that woman who sued McDonald’s over the hot coffee and won four ba-jillion dollars in damages.” The popular version of the story has a little something for everyone: a stalwart national company, the apparently absurd premise that someone would object to coffee being served hot, and a cash settlement that was large enough to be memorable.

Although the particulars of the case have been repeated so often that it has begun to sound like an urban legend, there really was a “hot coffee lawsuit.” How well do people remember the facts of the case that’s often used as the epitome of out-of-control litigiousness? Let’s take a look at 1994’s Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants.

The world’s most infamous cup of coffee spilled on February 27, 1992 in Albuquerque, NM. Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old grandmother, was a passenger in her grandson’s car when they drove through at a McDonald’s, and after she received her styrofoam cup of joe her grandson pulled the car forward and parked so Liebeck could mix in her cream and sugar.

Liebeck braced the cup between her knees, but when she tried to pull off the cup’s lid, the entire cup of coffee spilled into her lap. Although subsequent developments in the courtroom turned Liebeck and her case into objects of derision, it’s worth noting that she actually suffered legitimate injuries from the accident. Liebeck’s sweatpants absorbed the hot coffee and held it next to her skin, which helped lead to third degree burns on six percent of her body. Liebeck ended up spending eight days in the hospital and undergoing skin grafts to counter the effects of the burns.

Of course, most people who use the Liebeck decision to make a point about tort reform don’t do so to minimize the severity of Liebeck’s injuries. They’re blasting the apparent greed with which liability lawyers operate. It’s also worth noting, though, Liebeck apparently didn’t hear cash registers ringing immediately after she suffered the injuries. Liebeck had rung up around $11,000 in medical bills as a result of the accident, and she initially approached McDonald’s asking for $20,000 to cover her medical bills, future medical expenses, and lost income.

In a move McDonald’s surely lived to regret, the restaurant countered with a lowball offer of $800. The restaurant apparently used the same sort of common-sense logic that most people applied to the case when they heard about it; that is, if you spill coffee into your own lap the only person liable for the accident is you.

The please-go-away offer didn’t sit too well with Liebeck and her legal counsel, and although they made several other attempts to settle the case out of court at prices as high as $300,000, McDonald’s refused to blink. With no settlement in sight, attorney Reed Morgan filed a suit against McDonald’s to ask for $100,000 in compensatory damages and more in punitive damages since McDonald’s had been grossly negligent in selling Liebeck a “defectively manufactured” product. (Yes, the logic was that overheating coffee rendered the beverage defective and dangerous.)

McDonald’s asked for a summary dismissal of Liebeck case on the grounds that she was the actual cause of her injuries since she was the one who physically spilled the coffee. The trial judge rejected the motion, though, and told Liebeck and McDonald’s to attend a mediation session in a last-ditch attempt to hammer out a settlement. The mediator advised McDonald’s to settle for $225,000. McDonald’s – you may see a pattern emerging here – again scoffed at opening its coffers. Instead, the case went before a jury.

It’s safe to say that the impaneled citizens probably weren’t expecting to hear hours of testimony about the temperature of coffee when they got their jury duty notices in the mail. That’s what they heard, though. Over the course of the trial, Liebeck’s team established that McDonald’s had a policy of serving its coffee at temperatures ranging from 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit to enhance flavor and ensure that to-go cups were still warm when they reached their destinations. (The coffee that you brew at home probably comes out at around 140 degrees, so there’s a significant difference.) Moreover, experts testified that skin can burn quickly when contacted by liquids at these temperatures.

More damning, though, was McDonald’s own testimony. The company admitted that in the decade before Liebeck’s incident, upwards of 700 customers had filed complaints about its coffee causing burns. McDonald’s argued that the 700 complaints were only one for every 24 million cups of coffee sold, though, so the danger was statistically insignificant. (Note to any aspiring trial lawyers out there: it’s probably not a good idea to bring up statistical significance when there’s a severely burned grandmother sitting in front of a jury.)

The jurors only needed four hours of deliberation to arrive at their infamous verdict. The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages but dropped this sum to $160,000 since it felt Liebeck was 20-percent at fault for her accident. The real whopper, though, were the punitive damages against McDonald’s, which the jury pegged at $2.7 million. (That number reflected roughly two days’ worth of McDonald’s coffee revenues.)

The trial judge would later reduce the punitive damages to $480,000, but the media had already sunk its teeth into the $2.9 million total the jury returned. In truth, though, we don’t know how much cash actually changed hands between Liebeck and McDonald’s. Both parties appealed the trial judge’s reduced figure for damages, and the two parties eventually reached an undisclosed out-of-court settlement before the appeals were heard.

Regardless of where you stand on the merits of Liebeck’s legal case, it’s hard to deny the sweep of the infamous “coffee case.” McDonald’s now serves its coffee in a lower temperature range, and the warnings about the dangers of hot liquids seem to grow continuously. Liebeck died in 2004 at the age of 91, three years before McDonald’s added iced coffee to its menu.

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

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5 World War I-Era Tips for Celebrating Thanksgiving in Strange Times

Thanksgiving Day menu from November 1917 at Fort D. A. Russell in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Thanksgiving Day menu from November 1917 at Fort D. A. Russell in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
National World War I Museum and Memorial

The year 2020 has been one of hardships, sacrifices, and reimagined traditions. As the United States enters the holiday season with COVID-19 cases at a record high, this reality is more undeniable than ever.

Thanksgiving may look different for many people this year, but it won’t be totally unprecedented. Whether you’re connecting with people remotely, entertaining a smaller group, or trying out a new menu, you can find guidance in the records of Thanksgivings past.

As a 1918 newspaper article from the National World War I Museum and Memorial’s archives reads, “The thanks of the Yanks may differ this year from that of peace-time Novembers, but [...] the spirit of the day is always the same, however much the surroundings may differ."

Americans celebrating Thanksgiving at home and abroad during World War I had to deal with food shortages, being away from family, and, in 1918, a global pandemic. Mental Floss spoke with Lora Vogt, the World War I Museum’s curator of education, about what people making the best of this year’s holiday can learn form wartime Thanksgiving celebrations.

1. Mail Treats to Loved Ones.

Thanksgiving postcard from 1918.National World War I Museum and Memorial

Even when separated by great distances, families found ways to share food on Thanksgiving a century ago. “We have all of these letters from service members saying thanks for the candy, thanks for the cakes, thank you for the donuts—all of these foods they were sent from their loved ones when they couldn't be together,” Vogt tells Mental Floss.

If you're spending Thanksgiving apart from the people you love this year, sending them a treat in the mail can be a great way to connect from a distance. Just remember that not everything people mailed to each other during World War I belongs in a modern care package. “I would suggest you forgo the live chickens,” Vogt says. “The USPS has been through so much this year already.”

2. Try a New Recipe.

Food shortages made ingredients like sugar, wheat, and red meat hard to come by during World War I. In 1918, the U.S. government released a cookbook titled Win the War in the Kitchen, which featured ration-friendly recipes. Americans aren’t dealing with the same food shortages they saw during World War I (or even March 2020) this Thanksgiving, but an unconventional celebration could be the perfect excuse to recreate a dish from history. Some recipes from Win the War in the Kitchen that could fit into your Thanksgiving menu include corn fritters, lentil casserole, carrot pudding, Puritan turkey stuffing, and maple syrup cake with maple syrup frosting. You can find the full digitized version of the book at the National World War I Museum’s online exhibit.

3. Depart From Tradition.

This year is the perfect opportunity to break the rules on Thanksgiving. That means instead of sitting down to a stuffy dinner at a set time, you could enjoy a relaxed day of eating, drinking, and binge-watching. This excerpt from a 1918 letter written by serviceman James C. Ryan to his mother may provide some inspiration:

"Had Thanksgiven [sic] dinner at Huber's over in Newark. Collins was in Cleveland on a furlough and Huber and his wife was alone with me [...] Started off with a little champagne and I certainly did put away an awfull [sic] feed. Had several cold bottles during the day and after coming back from a movie we had a few and some turkey sandwiches."

“Starting off with a little champagne does not sound like a bad plan,” Vogt tells Mental Floss. “And it was very much a small pod. They have their variation of Netflix, and then turkey sandwiches at the end of the day. Certainly some similarities and some inspiration there.”

Thanksgiving festivities were also unconventional for soldiers serving overseas in World War I. While stationed "somewhere in France" on November 29, 1918, Hebert Naylor wrote to his mother describing a Thanksgiving with two big meals—and not a turkey in sight:

“We came back and had breakfast at 10 o’clock. It consisted of pancakes, syrup, bacon and coffee. We had the big dinner at 4:30 PM and I tell you it was quite a dinner to be served to so many men. It consisted of baked chicken, creamed corn, french fried potatoes, lettuce, pie, cake and coffee. This was the first pie and cake I had since I left home and believe me it tasted good.”

4. Find Normalcy Where You Can.

Thanksgiving 1918 for the 79th Aero Squadron at Taliaferro Field, Hicks, Texas.National World War I Museum and Memorial

No matter what your Thanksgiving looks like in 2020, making room for a couple of traditions can provide much-needed comfort in a year of uncertainty. Even people celebrating during wartime 100 years ago were able to incorporate some normalcy into their festivities. On November 29, 1917, serviceman Thomas Shook wrote about seeing a football game while at army training camp: “In the afternoon several of us went to the Army vs. Ill. U. football game. There sure was some crowd. Army lost the game first they have lost.”

Keeping some classic items on the menu is another way make the day feel more traditional. Army trainee Charles Stevenson wrote to his grandmother on Thanksgiving 1917: “We had about the best dinner I ever ate today—turkey, cranberry sauce and cranberries, fruit salad, mashed potatoes, gravy, dressing, tea and mine [sic] pie. Pretty fine eating for the soldier bosy [sic].”

5. Share What You’re Thankful For.

During the Great War’s darkest moments, some service members were still inspired to express gratitude when Thanksgiving rolled around. Thomas Shook wrote in a letter to his parents dated November 28, 1918 that after surviving the war, he had now escaped the Spanish Flu that was infecting many of the men he served with. Despite the hardships he endured, he was thankful to have been spared by the virus and be on his way home.

Wherever you are this Thanksgiving, sharing what you’re grateful for with loved ones—even if it’s by phone, Zoom, or a handwritten letter—is a simple way to celebrate the holiday.