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The Real Details of the Hot Coffee Lawsuit

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Any time you find yourself in an argument about frivolous lawsuits and tort reform, someone’s probably going to bring up “that woman who sued McDonald’s over the hot coffee and won four ba-jillion dollars in damages.” The popular version of the story has a little something for everyone: a stalwart national company, the apparently absurd premise that someone would object to coffee being served hot, and a cash settlement that was large enough to be memorable.

Although the particulars of the case have been repeated so often that it has begun to sound like an urban legend, there really was a “hot coffee lawsuit.” How well do people remember the facts of the case that’s often used as the epitome of out-of-control litigiousness? Let’s take a look at 1994’s Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants.

The world’s most infamous cup of coffee spilled on February 27, 1992 in Albuquerque, NM. Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old grandmother, was a passenger in her grandson’s car when they drove through at a McDonald’s, and after she received her styrofoam cup of joe her grandson pulled the car forward and parked so Liebeck could mix in her cream and sugar.

Liebeck braced the cup between her knees, but when she tried to pull off the cup’s lid, the entire cup of coffee spilled into her lap. Although subsequent developments in the courtroom turned Liebeck and her case into objects of derision, it’s worth noting that she actually suffered legitimate injuries from the accident. Liebeck’s sweatpants absorbed the hot coffee and held it next to her skin, which helped lead to third degree burns on six percent of her body. Liebeck ended up spending eight days in the hospital and undergoing skin grafts to counter the effects of the burns.

Of course, most people who use the Liebeck decision to make a point about tort reform don’t do so to minimize the severity of Liebeck’s injuries. They’re blasting the apparent greed with which liability lawyers operate. It’s also worth noting, though, Liebeck apparently didn’t hear cash registers ringing immediately after she suffered the injuries. Liebeck had rung up around $11,000 in medical bills as a result of the accident, and she initially approached McDonald’s asking for $20,000 to cover her medical bills, future medical expenses, and lost income.

In a move McDonald’s surely lived to regret, the restaurant countered with a lowball offer of $800. The restaurant apparently used the same sort of common-sense logic that most people applied to the case when they heard about it; that is, if you spill coffee into your own lap the only person liable for the accident is you.

The please-go-away offer didn’t sit too well with Liebeck and her legal counsel, and although they made several other attempts to settle the case out of court at prices as high as $300,000, McDonald’s refused to blink. With no settlement in sight, attorney Reed Morgan filed a suit against McDonald’s to ask for $100,000 in compensatory damages and more in punitive damages since McDonald’s had been grossly negligent in selling Liebeck a “defectively manufactured” product. (Yes, the logic was that overheating coffee rendered the beverage defective and dangerous.)

McDonald’s asked for a summary dismissal of Liebeck case on the grounds that she was the actual cause of her injuries since she was the one who physically spilled the coffee. The trial judge rejected the motion, though, and told Liebeck and McDonald’s to attend a mediation session in a last-ditch attempt to hammer out a settlement. The mediator advised McDonald’s to settle for $225,000. McDonald’s – you may see a pattern emerging here – again scoffed at opening its coffers. Instead, the case went before a jury.

It’s safe to say that the impaneled citizens probably weren’t expecting to hear hours of testimony about the temperature of coffee when they got their jury duty notices in the mail. That’s what they heard, though. Over the course of the trial, Liebeck’s team established that McDonald’s had a policy of serving its coffee at temperatures ranging from 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit to enhance flavor and ensure that to-go cups were still warm when they reached their destinations. (The coffee that you brew at home probably comes out at around 140 degrees, so there’s a significant difference.) Moreover, experts testified that skin can burn quickly when contacted by liquids at these temperatures.

More damning, though, was McDonald’s own testimony. The company admitted that in the decade before Liebeck’s incident, upwards of 700 customers had filed complaints about its coffee causing burns. McDonald’s argued that the 700 complaints were only one for every 24 million cups of coffee sold, though, so the danger was statistically insignificant. (Note to any aspiring trial lawyers out there: it’s probably not a good idea to bring up statistical significance when there’s a severely burned grandmother sitting in front of a jury.)

The jurors only needed four hours of deliberation to arrive at their infamous verdict. The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages but dropped this sum to $160,000 since it felt Liebeck was 20-percent at fault for her accident. The real whopper, though, were the punitive damages against McDonald’s, which the jury pegged at $2.7 million. (That number reflected roughly two days’ worth of McDonald’s coffee revenues.)

The trial judge would later reduce the punitive damages to $480,000, but the media had already sunk its teeth into the $2.9 million total the jury returned. In truth, though, we don’t know how much cash actually changed hands between Liebeck and McDonald’s. Both parties appealed the trial judge’s reduced figure for damages, and the two parties eventually reached an undisclosed out-of-court settlement before the appeals were heard.

Regardless of where you stand on the merits of Liebeck’s legal case, it’s hard to deny the sweep of the infamous “coffee case.” McDonald’s now serves its coffee in a lower temperature range, and the warnings about the dangers of hot liquids seem to grow continuously. Liebeck died in 2004 at the age of 91, three years before McDonald’s added iced coffee to its menu.

job secrets
10 Secrets of Hotel Room Service

Guests visiting New York City's Waldorf Astoria hotel in the 1930s enjoyed an amenity that was unheard of at the time: waiters delivering meals directly to their rooms. While the Astoria’s reputation for luxury has endured, room service is no longer exclusive to five-star stays. Roughly 22 percent of the country’s 54,000 hotels [PDF] are willing and able to bring breakfast, lunch, or dinner to people who prefer to eat while splayed out on a large and strange bed.

To get the scoop on what goes into getting food from the kitchen to your floor, Mental Floss spoke with Matt, a hospitality specialist who spent a total of 10 years working in and around room service for a major San Francisco hotel. Matt preferred not to use his last name; since his stories sometimes involved naked people, undercooked chicken, and Oprah, you can understand why. Below, check out a few things you should know before you dig into that tray.


When a room service delivery employee takes a tray from the kitchen to your room, it’s typically covered in a metal lid to retain heat and to prevent other guests from sneezing on it. The higher up you are, the longer it has to travel—and the more that lid traps steam, soaking your food in moisture. “Food sweats in there,” Matt says. “Instead of having crispy, toasted bread, you get wet toast. The longer it stays in there, the worse it gets.” If you want crunchy fries, you’d better be on the first couple of floors.


A seafood dinner is presented on a plate

That lid is a nuisance in other ways. Because it traps heat, it’s effectively cooking your food in the time it takes to get from the chef’s hands to yours. “If you order a steak medium, it will probably be medium well by the time it gets to you,” Matt says. While you can try to outsmart the lid by requesting meat be cooked a notch lower than your preference, it's not so easy to avoid overcooked fish—which will probably also stink up your room. Instead, stick with burgers, club sandwiches, or salads. According to Matt, it’s hard to mess any of them up.


Just because you see a menu in your room, it doesn’t mean the hotel has a kitchen or chef on-site. To cut costs, more hotels are opting to out-source their room service to local eateries. “It might be ‘presented’ by the hotel, but it’s from a restaurant down the street,” Matt says. Alternately, hotels might try to save money by eliminating an overnight chef and having food pre-prepped so a desk clerk or other employee can just heat it up. That’s more likely if sandwiches or salads are the only thing available after certain hours.


Two coffee cups sit on a hotel bed

No, not for the reason you’re thinking. Because so many hotel guests are business travelers who are away from home for weeks or months at a time, some of them get tired of eating alone. When that happens, they turn to the first—and maybe only—person who could offer company: the room service waiter. “People are usually traveling alone, so they’ll offer you food,” Matt explains. Sometimes the traveler is a familiar face: According to Matt, he once sat down to eat with Oprah Winfrey, who was eating by herself despite her suite being filled with her own employees. He also says he had a bite with John F. Kennedy Junior, who wanted to finish watching Fast Times at Ridgemont High before heading for his limo.


Busy hotel kitchens aren’t always paying attention to whether the chicken wings they buy in bulk are frozen raw, frozen cooked, or somewhere in between. “Ask for them extra crispy,” Matt says. That way, they’ll be cooked thoroughly regardless of their freezer status. “I recommend that to everyone.”


A hotel guest pours milk into a bowl of cereal

Breakfast is undoubtedly the busiest time for room service, and those little cards that allow you to check off your menu items the night before are a huge help. “It’s great for everybody involved,” Matt says. “The kitchen can pace themselves and you can get your food on time.”


Yes, guests answer the door barely clothed. No, this is not optimal. “We don’t want to see it,” Matt says. “It's something we dealt with numerous times.” While it's likely your waiter will use discretion, any combination of genitalia, drugs, or illicit activity is best kept out of their sight.


A hotel room service tray sits in a hallway

That move where you stick your soggy fries outside your door? It can lead to some awkward encounters. Matt says he’s seen other guests stop, examine trays, and then pick up discarded food from them. Other times, people leave unimaginably gross items on the trays. “I’ve found condoms on there. Divorce paperwork. All kinds of things.”


Weird people aside, “We don’t really want it out there,” Matt says. “It stinks.” Instead, dial 0 for the front desk and let them know you’re done eating. They’ll dispatch someone to come and get it.


A tip is placed near a hotel check

People pay out the nose for room service, with hotels adding surcharges for “service” and “in-room” dining that can turn a $5 club sandwich into a $15 expense. That’s not great news for guests, but it does mean you don’t need to feel bad about not offering a cash tip. Those service fees usually go straight to the employees who got your food to your room. “I never tip,” Matt says. “Most of the time, the service and delivery charges are given to the waiter or split between the people who answered the phone and pick up the tray. It’s better to leave it all on paper to make sure it gets divided up.”

Big Questions
What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding for the first time this year on Friday, March 23. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?


Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.


Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the Sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the Sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the Sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the Sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This story originally ran in 2017.


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