Remember the woman who sued McDonald’s?

in Buying Coffee, Coffee History

Originally published on October 25, 2011

Marc’s note: Last night, I finally watched the 2011 documentary Hot Coffee, an in-depth look into the lawsuit against McDonald’s for serving coffee that was too hot.  It reminded me of the blog post below, and ironic that the documentary also referenced the Seinfeld bit.  Enjoy!

     When I buy a cup of coffee, I still notice the little icon on the cup that reminds us that the coffee is hot.  It always reminds me of the crazy woman that we all laugh at, who sued McDonald’s because for some reason, she didn’t think their coffee that she spilled on herself was going to be hot.  It led to the little “hot” graphic on EVERYBODY’s coffee cups, and even a parody on Seinfeld where Kramer burns himself in a similar way.

I was forced to buy Starbucks coffee at an airport recently, and noticed the hot warning.  It made me realize that I’ve heard different versions of how that woman’s story ends, but most often that a judge overturned the original decision to award her any money because her case was frivilous.  I looked into it a little further, and I’m ashamed to say that there is much to this case that we don’t talk about because it’s not as interesting a story.

Ladies and gentlemen, here’s the truth about that case.  It may not change your mind, but you should know the facts before passing judgement on this “crazy woman”:

– She was the passenger in the vehicle, different than what I remembered.  I had an image in my head that she was driving while preparing the coffee for herself.  This is a side point, as a spill is a spill, and it was her accident to spill it on herself.

– The coffee served to her was between 180 and 190 degrees.  This was the standard temperature for McDonald’s coffee at the time.  A vascular surgeon that testified in court determined that she suffered third-degree burns on 6% of her body,  including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas.  She was hospitalized for eight days, and underwent skin grafting in that time.

– She was 79 at the time.  This wasn’t the image I remembered.  Also, a side point as McDonald’s is not going to vary the temperature of their coffee for the age of their customer.

– I remember hearing outrageous amounts that this woman wanted from the big corporation for burning herself.  She sought to settle her claim for medical expenses only, and McDonald’s refused.

– During trial, McDonald’s Quality Assurance Manager testified that a burn hazard exists with any food product served to a customer at 140 degrees or hotter, and that the temperature of the coffee by standard could not be reasonably consumed as it would burn the mouth and throat.  Of course, nobody is expected to guzzle a cup of coffee as soon as it’s handed to them, but other testimony in the case indicated that coffee served at 155 degrees would have allowed the plaintiff time to remove the clothing that absorbed the coffee and scalded her.  155 degrees is still hotter than the temperature at which some chains were serving their coffee at the time.

– McDonald’s asserted that customers are known to buy coffee with the intention of consuming it at home or at work so it would have time to cool down.  This was countered with McDonald’s own published research that their coffee was being consumed by customers while driving and before reaching their destination.

– A jury at first awarded her $200,000, then reduced it to $160,000, stating that she was 20% to blame for the incident.  The judge called McDonalds’ conduct reckless, callous and willful.  None of us know how it was finally settled, because it was settled out of court.

There you have it.  I’ll reserve my opinion, because everybody here in the Pacific Northwest buys drive-through Americanos from espresso stands, and those are so hot, that the ‘baristas’ ask if you would like an ice cube in it so that you can drink it within an hour of it being prepared.

Thank you to the Lectric Law Library for the facts.


  1. Thank you for this interesting read. In recent years when McDonalds changed their coffee (and had one of their free coffee promos =P) I actually changed from Tim Hortons to McDonalds. In my opinion it tastes better, and I get a better bang for my buck.

    I, like you, had no idea that those things happened. I figured it was a young woman who was driving and not being so thoughtful about her surroundings (ie the coffee) I’m surprised that they didn’t take the settlement to begin with, I guess they really thought they had a fighting chance to win. It could have saved them a great deal of money…

    It would seem she definitely deserved compensation; I think $160,000 was somewhat steep. But what do I know? =P I hope she’s doing well now, and everything healed up nicely. What a thing to happen to you in old age; when you really should be enjoying yourself!

    Comment by Valerie — November 1, 2011 @ 1:11 am

  2. I agree with you Valerie. I’m guessing she just wanted enough to cover medical bills until they decided not to give it to her. My uneducated guess it the jury probably decided on more themselves. On that point I can’t blame her.

    Comment by Betty — November 2, 2011 @ 10:05 am

  3. I’m glad you enjoyed the read. I couldn’t believe how ignorant I was of the details.

    Comment by Marc Wortman — November 12, 2011 @ 10:19 am

Add your comment