Frivolous Lawsuits

By: Jack Cannon

As trial lawyers representing seriously injured individuals, we are frequently questioned about the nature of lawsuits. The term “frivolous lawsuit” has become a catch phrase. The most frequent example used is the McDonald’s case. It is almost ten years since the McDonald’s case. Most individuals are of the opinion that the case was the worst example of our civil justice system gone awry.

A close examination of the facts beyond the myth shows that rather than being an example of a civil justice system gone awry, the McDonald’s case is in fact an example of a civil justice system designed to present equal protection to all parties whether you are a 70 year old retiree or a billion dollar corporation.

The McDonald’s’ scalding coffee case has become the poster child for frivolous lawsuits. No one is in favor of frivolous cases; however, it is important to understand some points that were not reported in most of the stories about the case. McDonald’s coffee was not only hot, it was scalding – capable of almost instantaneous destruction of skin, flesh and muscle.


Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico was a 79-year-old grandmother seated in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car when she was severely burned by McDonald’s coffee in February of 1992. One of the more prevalent myths about this case is that Ms. Liebeck was driving the car or that the vehicle was in motion when she spilled the coffee. Neither in fact is true.

Ms. Liebeck’s grandson pulled up to the drive-thru window, and received his order. He pulled his car forward and stopped momentarily so that Ms. Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Ms. Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup. As Ms. Liebeck removed the lid, the entire contents of the cup spilled into her lap.

A vascular surgeon testified that Ms. Liebeck suffered third degree burns to her inner thighs, groin, perineum and genitals. The sweat pants she was wearing absorbed the heat and held it next to her skin. She was hospitalized for eight days during which time she underwent skin grafting and debridement treatments, which is a nice way of describing the surgical removal of tissue. Ms. Liebeck offered to settle her claim for $20,000.00 before filing suit. McDonald’s refused. The case was filed.

In every civil law suit there is a process called discovery wherein both sides produce documents that are pertinent to the case. In the Liebeck case, McDonald’s produced documents showing more than seven hundred claims by people who had been burned by their coffee between 1982 and 1992 including some claims that involved third degree burns substantially similar to that of Ms. Liebeck.

McDonald’s admitted that they had known about the risk of the serious burns from the scalding hot coffee for more than ten years. McDonald’s admitted that up until that point it did not warn customers of the nature and extent of the risk and could offer no explanation as to why it did not. Ms. Liebeck’s treating physician testified that her injuries were one of the worst scald burns he had ever seen.

McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that a burn hazard exists with any food served about 140 degrees. McDonald’s training manual recommended that the coffee be brewed between one hundred and ninety five to two hundred and five degrees Fahrenheit and held at one hundred and eighty to one hundred and ninety degrees Fahrenheit. The quality assurance manager testified that the company actively enforces a requirement that coffee be held in the pot at 185 degrees, plus or minus 5 degrees and further testified that while burns do occur, McDonald’s had no intentions of reducing the holding temperature of its coffee.

Coffee served at the one hundred and eighty to one hundred ninety degree Fahrenheit temperature, if spilled, causes third degree burns in two to seven seconds. The skin is burned away down to the muscle, fatty/fatty tissue layer. Third degree burns do not heal without skin grafting, debridement and whirlpool treatment that cost tens of thousands of dollars and result in permanent disfigurement, extreme pain and disability of the victim for many months and in some cases years.

In a survey of coffee taken in the fast food industry, no fast food service came closer than twenty degrees in temperature to the McDonald’s coffee. As an additional factor it should be noted that prior to the Liebeck case, the prestigious Shriners Burn Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio had published warnings to the franchise food industry that its members were unnecessarily causing scald burns by serving beverages above one hundred thirty degrees Fahrenheit.

McDonald’s claimed that customers buy their coffee on their way to work or home intending to consume it there. However, the companies own research showed that customers intended to consume the coffee while driving. The testimony of Mr. Christopher Appleton, a McDonald’s executive, did not help the company. He testified that McDonald’s knew that their coffee sometimes caused serious burns, but had not consulted burn experts about it. He also testified that McDonald’s had decided not to warn customers about the possibility of severe burns even though people wouldn’t think it possible. Finally he testified that McDonald’s did not intend to change any policies or procedures saying, “There are more serious dangers in restaurants”.

McDonald’s words came back to haunt them. Juror Jack Elliot was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying the case had been about “callous disregard of the safety of people”. McDonald’s called as a defense witness, P. Robert Knaff, a human factors engineer who several jurors testified did not help McDonald’s case either. Knaff told the jury that the hot coffee burns were statistically insignificant when compared to the billions of cups of coffee that McDonald’s sells annually. The jurors stated that Dr. Knaff seemed to be saying that the graphic photos they had seen of Ms. Liebecks burns didn’t matter because they were rare. One juror said, “There was a person behind every number and I don’t think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that”, said juror Betty Farham.

The jury awarded Stella Liebeck $200,000.00 in compensatory damages. This award was reduced by twenty percent due to the comparative negligence of Ms. Liebeck. This reduced the award to $160,000.00. The jury determined that Ms. Liebeck was twenty percent at fault. The jury also awarded 2.7 million dollars in punitive damages which equaled about two days of coffee sales.


Following the trial of Ms. Liebecks case, the judge who presided over it reduced the punitive damages award to $480,000.00, even though the judge called McDonald’s conduct reckless, callous and willful. Punitive damages often do not go entirely to the injured party. In Illinois, at the trial court’s discretion, they are divided between the Illinois Department of Human Services, the plaintiff and plaintiff’s attorney. The reduction in compensatory and punitive damages is a corrective feature built in to our legal system. In the end, both parties agreed to a settlement of the claim for a sum reported to be much less than the judges reduced award.

Here, the plaintiff received compensation for terrible injuries. And, McDonald’s changed its policy about warnings and reduced the temperature of the coffee to help prevent future serious injuries. So, in this case and in the vast majority of cases, the civil justice system really does work.