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A classic tale involving product liability is the McDonald’s hot coffee incident. Many people have heard this case and it is not uncommon for it to be used to demonstrate frivolous litigation aided by unscrupulous lawyers.

The classic story is of someone who bought a coffee at a drive thru McDonald’s, drove away while drinking the coffee and then sued McDonald's because they burned their lips. They won their case and McDonald’s was forced to state the obvious fact that coffee is hot on the side of their cups.

The facts of the case are somewhat different. Seventy-nine year-old Stella Liebeck was a passenger in her grandson's car. He pulled over and stopped while she put sugar in her styrofoam coffee cup. Because the cup had a lid on, she put it between her knees while removing the lid. As she removed the lid, the cup tipped over and the contents were spilled in her lap.

The temperature of the coffee was sufficient to cause third-degree burns to 6% of her body (thighs and buttocks) which required eight days in hospital and plastic surgery. She sued McDonald’s for the cost of the medical treatment.

During the discovery phase of the trial, Liebeck's lawyers found that several hundred other people had complained about similar events. This demonstrated that McDonald’s was aware of the situation (i.e., the coffee was so hot that it could severely scald people).

McDonald’s admitted that coffee sold at a scaldingly hot temperature is not fit for consumption.

This case demonstrates that a company had prior knowledge of a potentially dangerous situation that the public could not reasonably be expected to know. For commercial reasons, this knowledge was both kept from the public and nothing was done to ensure that a highly-likely accident did not occur.

Where is the Ethics?

The manufacturer has more knowledge of a product than the consumer. Furthermore, the manufacturer can see a more complete picture. In this case McDonald’s was aware that the temperature of its coffee was sufficiently high to cause scalding and that a considerable number of people had already been injured.

Ethical behavior requires that consumers be warned about the dangers of a product. Moreover, the product could have been sold at a temperature at which a scalding problem did not exist.

What is Hot?

People like hot coffee. But, what constitutes "hot"?

Body temperature if about 98°F. At home, we drink coffee at a temperature of about 135° to 140°F.

Water boils at 212°F.

McDonald’s maintained coffee at between 180° and 190°F because this was regarded at the optimum range for the best taste.

At a temperature of 180°F human skin suffers full thickness burns in under 7 seconds.

A third-degree burn means that the skin is burned through to the underlying fatty tissue layer.

At temperatures below 150°F, human skin is not damaged.

The Case of the Hot Coffee