Can you sue a restaurant if you are scalded by hot coffee?

When it comes to products, how responsible are companies when a customer is injured by what they’re offering? Both customers and restaurants have had a hard time deciphering where one end of the blame ends and where another end of the blame begins, but there has been one significant item that has remained at the forefront of customer injury: hot coffee. That’s right, there has been several instances where restaurants served coffee that landed itself in hot water due to customer burns/injuries from the product. However, it should be mentioned that hot coffee isn’t the only product individuals are getting injured by – or suing for.

Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants

One may have been heard about this case in one way or another, but the Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants case is what put customer rights into the national spotlight.

On February 27, 1992, a woman by the name Stella Liebeck bought a coffee at a drive-thru from McDonald’s. The 79 year old woman was in the passenger seat of her grandson’s vehicle and she attempted to put sugar/cream into the coffee with the cup between her knees. Sadly, Liebeck spilled the scalding coffee onto her lap, which left third degree burns on her groin, buttocks, and thighs.

The injuries that Liebeck had were so severe that she spent eight days in the hospital for skin grafts and she lost at least 20% of her bodyweight. Even after being discharged from the hospital, Liebeck’s condition required an additional three weeks of in-home care. The injuries sustained left her partially disabled and permanently disfigured.

Now one would assume that such situations would get sympathy from the general public, but many had the assertion that Liebeck was to blame for the incident. Before the trial began, her lawyer sought for a settlement of $20,000, which was meant to cover for the time her family lost at work for her care and to pay for Liebeck’s medical expenses due to the injury. To add insult to injury, McDonald’s countered her case with $800.

Liebeck’s dispute eventually went to trial, with Liebeck being awarded 2.7 million – although this case was settled before the appeal for an undisclosed amount. So why was this settled before trial? Well, McDonald’s was well aware that the coffee was being served at 180-190 degrees, which means that the coffee was capable of causing third degree burns within seven seconds. Although the temperature was within standards, it did not mean that McDonald’s wasn’t aware of how dangerous the coffee was. 10 years leading up to the case, McDonald’s had at least 700 reports indicating that customers were being burned by the coffee leading up to the case. Although those cases were settled out of court, it was Liebeck’s case that garnered national attention.

Although many had an opinion that came at Liebeck’s expense, it was McDonald’s negligence that led to serious harm for many individuals.

Product Liability & You

With this case, the precedent was set in stone. Fast food franchises, restaurants, and other companies saw a sharp uptick in lawsuits filed regarding their products. So what is this called? Well, this area of law is called product liability, which serves an incredibly important function: protecting American consumers from corporation negligence.

Liebeck’s legacy still continues in favor of the customer, especially in context of Starbucks and their lawsuits. A Jacksonville woman won $100,000 after her coffee cup lid fell off as she was being handed her product via drive-thru, which led to serious burns to her lap.

In response to this lawsuit, Starbucks started to offer coffee ice cubes in the event customers want cooler coffee, but don’t want their coffee watered down. However, hot coffee wasn’t the only issue customers were having with Starbucks.

A Utah woman sued for $2 million after discovering that cleaning solution (utilized for cleaning espresso and coffee machines) was laced with her Starbucks coffee and caused severe esophagus burns. The same situation happened to a woman in Washington where she received hot chocolate tainted with a cleaning solution. Starbucks staff told her not to drink it after they had discovered it was tainted, but the woman had already consumed half of the drink. The woman suffered severe medical issues for months after the drink was consumed.

Considering the information above, product liability lawsuits are intended to help you, the consumer. Have you been harmed by a product or serious? If so, contact us today for your legal options!


Burn Injury Lawyer