McDonald’s coffee revisited, August 2005 edition

by Ted Frank on August 13, 2005

One of the great urban legends perpetuated by the trial bar is that the ludicrous McDonald’s coffee case (Dec. 10, 2003; Aug. 3, 2004; Aug. 4, 2004, etc.) was somehow worthwhile because McDonald’s “lowered the temperature of its coffee” after it lost the case over Stella Liebeck’s burns. This claim is repeated by hundreds and perhaps thousands of web pages, and at least one tort-law casebook used in law schools.

Not so. Restaurants, much to the relief of consumers, continue to serve coffee hotter than the 140 degrees Stella Liebeck’s attorney thought should be the maximum limit. And, one time in several million, a customer is burnt by the coffee, and some fraction of those result in lawsuits. Latest examples: Rachel Wehrenberg of Florida is suing William F. Ganshirt and McDonald’s for second-degree burns suffered by her daughter when Ganshirt spilled his coffee on six-year-old Victoria’s back after the two collided; and Russian Olga Kuznetsova is suing McDonald’s for second-degree burns she suffered when she spilled coffee on herself while trying to exit the restaurant. The Naples News uncritically repeats attorney Debi Chalik’s false assertion that “industry standard” is “140 degrees.” The Russian lawsuit is over whether the restaurant’s door caused the spill; there does not appear to be a claim that the coffee was unreasonably hot just because it caused burns. Interestingly, there appear to be delays in the Russian case because the expert witness was found to have had contact with the plaintiff’s attorney, a common practice here that is an apparent nyet-nyet in Russia. (Kristen Zambo, “Mother sues McDonald’s claiming coffee burned daughter”, Bonita Daily News, Aug. 6; “Russian woman claims million for a cup of McDonald’s coffee”, Pravda (English), Aug. 9; Andrey Kolesnikov, “Not Fraud, Just Clumsiness”, Kommersant, Jul. 28).