What Happened After The McDonald's Hot Coffee Lawsuit?

In 1994, fast-food giant McDonald's became the subject of headlines for the lawsuit it faced against an elderly woman. To this day, it's an infamous case that a lot of people know about, but unfortunately, not all that's been spread about the case is true. The incident happened in 1992 when 79-year-old Stella Liebeck drove through McDonald's to get a cup of coffee. She was in the passenger seat while her grandson drove. As they got the order, her grandson parked their vehicle so that Liebeck could mix in sugar and cream into her coffee. The car had no drink holder, so Liebeck held the cup between her knees. She pulled off the lid, and the coffee spilled onto her lap, scorching her thighs and groin area (via Tort Museum).

The hot coffee (up to 190 degrees Fahrenheit) gave Liebeck third-degree burns on 16% of her body, and she was confined in a hospital for eight days. However, that wasn't the end of it. She had to undergo surgery and other treatments, and the entire process of recovery took a couple of years. Not to mention, she racked up huge medical bills that amounted to approximately $20,000, as reported by Vox. Liebeck initially didn't want to sue McDonald's, but she wanted the company to at least pay for her medical bills. However, McDonald's declined and offered only $800, which pushed Liebeck to file a lawsuit.

The McDonald's lawsuit and the aftermath

Unbeknownst to many, Stella Liebeck admitted that it was her fault that the coffee spilled. However, her issue with McDonald's was that the coffee was burning hot and was unsafe. Even before Liebeck's case, McDonald's had received hundreds of complaints from other customers who have burned themselves. Despite that, they continued serving extremely hot coffee, per Vox. Liebeck sued McDonald's for $125,000 for mental and physical pain, and the case went to trial in 1994. Her goal was to point out that the fast-food chain's coffee was too hot, and its temperature was comparable to a car's radiator after driving "from your office to home," as her lawyer said (via Reader's Digest).

In the end, the jury sided with Liebeck. Initially, they wanted her to get $2.7 million in damages, which was roughly equivalent to the McDonald's coffee sales for two days. However, the amount was later settled at $500,000. The case made headlines, and the public's perception of the case was somewhat skewed. Liebeck became a target, with many people accusing her of ripping off McDonald's for spilling her own coffee. Liebeck's daughter-in-law, Barbara, said, "I've heard people say she was asking for $30 million or something equally ridiculous. Basically, Stella told McDonald's, 'I want you to cover what Medicare doesn't cover, and I want you to get a better lid on that coffee because I don't want this to happen to another person.' That was what she was asking for."

What did McDonald's do afterward?

To the public, Stella Liebeck received millions of dollars from the lawsuit, which was so much higher than the $500,000 she got. After that, lawsuits against McDonald's and other restaurants started popping up, with some doing it in hopes of getting money. McDonald's has also learned from the lawsuit, and they changed how they serve coffee. Now, coffee is served at 180 degrees Fahrenheit, 10 degrees lower than before, per Reader's Digest. That isn't to say that it won't burn, though. That temperature is still hotter than the coffee you make at home.

Furthermore, thicker cups are now used to serve hot beverages. Lids have also changed, and they aren't merely flat ones to keep the cup covered. Instead, they have a sculptured design that comes with a hole at the top for sipping. For added safety when handling the hot cup, McDonald's and other fast-food restaurants serve their coffee with a sleeve that provides an added protection between the coffee cup and the hand, as reported by The Dieline.