McDonald's coffee lawsuit revisited

In the current fast food lawsuit thread:

the subject of the infamous coffee lawsuit came up. I know this has been debated to death in the past - here for example:

but I think it warrants further discussion.

In the fast food lawsuit thread, a link was posted to this site:

Here’s the problem I have with the “law and help” website: They identify themselves as:
*Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, medical malpractice, wrongful death, auto accident and personal injury attorneys and lawyers dedicated to vigorously representing the injured. *

Hardly impartial. And I see quite a few problems with their “facts”. Let’s go through them one by one:

That’s not a fact, it’s an opinion. The trial lawyers who wrote the article want you to believe that hot coffee is a problem. Speaking as a consumer, I like my coffee to be hot. I don’t just want it lukewarm, where I could chug the whole cup right there at the restaurant without discomfort. I want it hot, as in if I get it To Go, it will still be hot when I get home. Also, I found quite a few websites that make the point that if coffee is brewed at less than optimum temperature, it does not extract the full flavor of the coffee beans. Links appear later in this post.

700 complaints - sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? That’s the problem with using absolute numbers when you should really be using percentages - it’s misleading. Let’s skip to “Fact” No. 6:

They say 700 incidents have been settled by the corporation in 10 years. O.K., the corporation sells 1 billion cups of coffee a year. That’s BILLION, with a “B”. In 10 years, they sell 10 billion cups of coffee, with 700 complaints in the same time period. Still sound like a lot? To me, 700 out of 10 billion would constitute a NEGLIGIBLE number of complaints. I wonder how many complaints they got that the coffee was not hot enough? I’d be willing to bet it was more than 700. Who were they supposed to listen to?

Yes, and that was tragic. But the fact remains that you are not supposed to pour the coffee on your groin. Here’s an interesting note, and I wish I had a cite, but unfortunately I don’t, because it was read orally from an article in a lecture I attended: The woman in this case claims that the driver of the car drove away from the restaurant, then stopped, at which time she took the lid off of the coffee. That really sounds like a lie to me. Why would you drive for awhile and THEN stop to fix your coffee? Any reasonable person would stop immediately upon exiting the drive-through. I suspect that she did it while the car was moving, but changed the story to increase her chances of winning the suit.

But SHE’s the one who spilled the coffee - why should they have had to pay her medical bills for something that was her fault?

Somehow I doubt he phrased it that way when he testified. Anyone have access to a transcript from the trial? I find it highly unlikely that a representative of McDonald’s took the stand and admitted that they served their coffee too hot just to be evil.

Which just tends to prove that the jury award was ridiculous.

So McDonald’s served coffee at 185 degrees, which can burn skin. But is that too hot to be serving coffee? According to this study, coffee shops serve the beverage at a higher temperature than that at which it is consumed, because it cools before you drink it:

This site recommends 195-205 degrees as the optimum brewing temperature:

Same here:

Is there anyone on the planet who doesn’t know that if you take coffee straight out of the pot and pour it directly on your skin, that it will burn you? The thing is, coffee cools fairly quickly. Most people don’t buy the coffee and then immediately run to a table and chug it down. It might be 10 or 15 minutes later that you actually drink it, and you want it to still be warm. In addition, coffee that is brewed at too low a temperature results in an inferior product. The consequence of this lawsuit is that, because of one unfortunate accident out of BILLIONS of cups of coffee being drunk without injury, I now have to drink nasty lukewarm coffee whenever I go out, because every restaurant is now afraid to serve it hot.

Sorry to dredge this up again, but it seems that these specious “facts” from the Law and Help website are still being accepted as absolute truth. I welcome your comments, arguments, flames, etc.

How is using the real, actual number of incidents misleading???

BTW, ‘incident’ and ‘complaint’ may mean different things.

It’s misleading because 700 sounds like a lot. Until you realize that it’s a very small percentage of the total number of cups sold. 700 complaints out of 10 billion…what percentage is that? 700 complaints out of 1,000 cups sold is much more significant. Absolute numbers are misleading because they don’t provide context, and so, are generally useless for true enlightenment purposes.

So 700 scalding incidents is insuffient for them to suspect a potential problem?

S’funny - what happens if you put this in a home or work situation. Personally, when I make coffee, I tend to pour it as soon as the kettle boils - ie. 100 degrees c. Similarly, if I make coffee (or tea) at work, as soon as that button clicks, the waters in the cup!

I can’t imagine my partner, my assistant and certainly myself being too surprised if freshly boiled water, spilt over oneself, caused burns. Man, I learnt that when I was about 3!!!

PS. Why have I turned American in this posting…!!! OMG!!

It may be. 700 people scalding themselves with hot coffee at a McDonald’s seems like an amazingly LOW total to me - it would be less than one incident per restaurant per CENTURY. I would have expected far more.

I admit that I have never understood the “they serve the coffee too hot” argument when juxtaposed with the information that the coffee was served at 185 degrees. Coffee should be brewed as close to 212F as possible, shouldn’t it? My coffee’s 185F or hotter, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t prefer it that way, for the simple reason that hot coffee will cool down but cool coffee won’t warm up. Why is it negligent to serve coffee at the same temperature most people brew it at home?


Except for the chug part (does anybody chug coffee even after it has cooled down?), I think that most people do do this. Every morning the McD’s I pass on the way to work is full of people sitting at tables eating their breakfast & drinking their coffee. It’s pretty obvious that these coffees were purchased moments before being consumed.

McDonalds is a fast food restaurant. Their goal is to serve people quickly so they can eat quickly. They are also interested in a high turnover rate for people sitting at their tables (signs posted in several McD’s in my area say “20 minute seating limit while eating”). With this goal in mind, their food & coffee should be at or very near a safe temperature for immediate consumption.

If you wait 15 or 20 minutes before drinking your coffee and by that time it has become too cool to enjoy, that is not McD’s fault, any more than it is their fault if you order a McBreakfast sandwich and it gets cold 20 minutes later from sitting on your car seat as you drive home.


It’s negligent to serve a beverage so hot that it will burn human skin, just like it would be negligent to serve a egg & cheese sandwich that is on fire.

I don’t know what temperature the coffee comes out of my Mr. Coffee at home, but I know that it comes out too hot to drink. McD’s should know this also, and while they may brew their coffee at “optimum” (i.e., higher) temperatures, they should not serve 185º+ coffee to their customers. That is to say, the hot plates should not keep the coffee the same temperature at which it was brewed.

So you’re the one who sits in the drive-thru lane playing with change and package wrappers while the whole world waits for you before you drive out?

Most people pull away from the service window (the restaurant) and then mess with their stuff farther down the parking lot where they won’t be in the way.

blowero, what do you think is more likely:

  1. McD’s serves coffee at a dangerously hot temperature to cater to the wishes of people like you, who want it too hot to drink for an extended period of time, and who are obviously in the minority, since the vast majority of customers want to drink their coffee right away.


  1. McD’s serves coffee at a dangerously hot temperature to save money because it lasts longer w/o going bad at this high temperature.

I do. Hate to waste caffeine, and if it still has some warmth left, I’ll finish it.

Where I am, most coffee is taken to be consumed in the office. Very few sit down for breakfast, be it McD, Starbucks or wherever. Generally, there is a several minute break between purchase and consumption, enough time for coffee to cool off it brewing temp.

So then those iron fajita pans that are used to serve sizzling food to the table should also be outlawed, simply because someone could get burned. And if they do, it’s the restaurant’s fault. I don’t buy it, I never bought it, and it would have been a hung jury had I been on it (was ab unanomous (sp?) vote needed?) because everything I’ve read on the sides defending the decision still haven’t convinced me. Why? Because if you make tea or coffee at home and spill it on yourself, it’s your fault. Why is it different if someone else makes it?

I would presume the coffee was brewed at 212F, or just below it. Coffee makers BOIL the water; boiled water is 212F at sea level. 185 would be cooled off.

I haven’t seen any evidence yet that 185 is an unusually high temperature at which to serve fresh coffee, or that any restaurant routinely refuses to serve coffee that was just brewed (and hence would be quite hot.)

The McDonald’s Coffee lawsuit was based on a very simple premise: if you give something to someone that ought not carry a high risk of harm (a regular, everyday cup of coffee) that you have modified purposefully in a manner which has significantly increased the risk of harm (heated it to a temperature at which it can cause second degree burns to skin through clothing) and you offer no warning (i.e. “coffee is so hot that it can cause severe burns if it comes in contact with human skin”) and then it does harms them, even through an accident, you bear liability for that harm.

The plaintiff in this case was found to have exercised normal care. She didn’t do anything extraordinarily different with the coffee than thousands of people do all of the time. What was different was the high temperature of the coffee – a temperature at which it was not even suitable for its intended purpose, because no regular person could drink coffee so hot that it burns the skin even when it is tempered by the clothing.

The difference between this case and someone burning themselves on an iron fajita skillet, D_Odds example, is that the average consumer of fajitas can tell (by the sizzling and smoking) that the fajita pan is extremely hot. The high temperature of the McDonald’s coffee was masked by the insulated foam cup in which it was served. Also, servers routinely warn dining patrons when plates and pans of that nature are too hot to be safely handled bare-handed, even when that is plainly obvious. There was no warning given to the plaintiff that the coffee she was given was as hot as it was. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the temperature of the fajita pans is necessary and intrinsic to its stated purpose and function. The high temperature of the coffee was in diametric opposition to its purpose: it was so hot that it could not have been safely consumed.

I’m with ya there. I like my coffee lukewarm specifically so I can chug it.

Well, I would certainly argue against handing those iron fajita pans with sizzling food to people in thier cars. Also, those are a preference thing. The coffee being hot was McD’s saving money on coffee, not customers wanting it that way.

McDonald’s used to serve its coffee considerably hotter than most other restaurants. They did this because it let them use cheaper coffee and let them brew it less often. They were warned – repeatedly – that this increased the risk of serious injury to patrons but persisted because they concluded they would save more money by using cheaper coffee and fewer brew cycles than they expectd to have to pay out to people injured by their scalding practices.

All these facts were proved at trial. Finding liability, given those facts, is not hard. McDonald’s engaged in a practice they knew to be dangerous for the purpose of providing an inferior product at less cost, without particularly caring that doing so increased the danger to their customers and without warning them of the increased risk. The verdict and the damages were justified.

Problem Is: Coffee = grounds + nearly boiling water. Assumption of Risk Doctrine. Any activity involving water at extreme temperatures entails some risk. This is a patently obvious risk most people have successfully dealt with since childhood.

The only way the plaintiff (old woman: and don’t think that was no factor in the original trial) should have recovered is if her car had no drink holders, she asked for one of those cardboard drink holders, and McDonalds refused her. She put the coffee in her lap. Who does that?

My God, just wrap us in bubble plastic and get it over with.

I dunno, I couldn’t get through a Monday morning without a flaming McMuffin. The restaurants in my area are selling them on a trial basis.

Beagle: Coffee is brewed with nearly boiling water, but by the time it has brewed it’s not nearly so hot. McDonald’s deliberately kept their coffee warmers set at a higher temperature than generally recommended for or desired by coffee drinkers, creating danger when there was no good reason to do so.

I dunno, I couldn’t get through a Monday morning without a flaming McMuffin. The restaurants in my area are selling them on a trial basis.

Honestly, what kind of risk do you believe you assume when you handle a cup of hot coffee? What do you think the risks should be for handling a common, everyday beverage? Approximately the same as handling a tightly controlled liquid like liquid nitrogen?


[sub](Emphasis added)[/sub]

Who said hot coffee should be outlawed? If McD’s had had a warning on their cups (like they do now) that the coffee was extremely hot, or issued a verbal warning, they would probably have been off the hook. I don’t go to tex-mex places often but the few times I have been there, I’ve heard the waiter tell the people at the table that the pan/plate/dish/whatever was dangerously hot. Although the fact that the food was still sizzling in the pan should have made such notice unnecessary. A hot cup of coffee displays no such warning.


And french fries = potatoes + 325º oil. If the fries were still that hot when they were served to customers, you’d better believe McD’s would be in a world of well-deserved trouble.


I nominate this as the SBMD official pet name for matt_mcl. :smiley: