Hot Coffee Lawsuits

Are you a coffee fan?

When you walk into a Starbucks, McDonald’s, or other similar establishment, you are likely thinking about the delicious, warm beverage you are about to receive. But have you ever wondered what would happen if your coffee led to a serious injury?

In 1992, a 71-year-old woman in New Mexico forced the courts to confront this question, sparking the beginning of high profile and often mocked “hot coffee lawsuits.” Stella Liebeck, of the Liebeck vs. McDonald’s Restaurants lawsuit, suffered third-degree burns after accidentally spilling a cup of coffee from McDonald’s in her lap. The incident required hospitalization, skin grafting, and left Ms. Liebeck with a partial disability, severely diminishing her quality of life.

The infamous Starbucks lawsuit

Her lawsuit alleged that McDonald’s, by requiring its franchises to heat their coffee up to 190 degrees Fahrenheit, endangered their customers. Coffee is ideally around 140 degrees Fahrenheit.  By serving their coffee at such an extreme temperature, McDonald’s made their coffee a dangerous liability. Following the trial, Ms. Liebeck received $200,000 in compensatory damages, plus an additional $2.7 million in punitive damages. Both parties eventually settled for a smaller, undisclosed amount. The jury found Ms. Liebeck to be about 20% at fault in the case, since she was the one who actually spilled the coffee. However, McDonald’s was more liable for the damages, as the warnings labels on the cup were not big enough. They were also knowingly serving coffee at a very high temperature.

Ms. Liebeck’s hot coffee case was called frivolous, worthless, and unnecessary by the media. However, since 1992, hot coffee lawsuits have continued to pop up across the country. Most recently, a man in North Carolina sued Starbucks in 2015 after suffering burns from a spilled cup of coffee. He claimed that the incident left third degree burns on his legs, and inflamed his Crohn’s disease, leading him to require surgery. He also alleged that the incident left him and his wife with emotional damage. Though he sought damages of up to $750,000, the jury concluded that Starbucks was not liable for his injuries, and did not owe the injured man any compensation. Following the 1992 case, it’s possible that Starbucks put larger and more readable “warning” signs on their hot beverages, which would protect them from hot coffee lawsuits.

These lawsuits may indeed seem frivolous, but they do raise important concerns about product liability.

Many products, including food and vehicles, may cause injury or death if a product is poorly manufactured or inaccurately labeled. In other cases, like the hot coffee lawsuits, the injuries are based in a company’s negligence. For the victims of defective or negligent products, life can change unexpectedly and dramatically. If you have been injured in by a product, take steps toward finding compensation – no matter how “frivolous” your case may sound to others!


The attorneys at Perenich, Caulfield, Avril & Noyes represent those involved in car accidents, motorcycle accidents, bicycle accidents, pedestrian accidents, and other types of personal injury matters. Our firm is one of the oldest personal injury law firms in Tampa Bay. There are no attorneys’ fees or costs unless we prevail for you. Call our office 24 hours a day at 727-796-8282 or simply click here to schedule a free case consultation.


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