Boiling Over: The Rising Tide of Hot Beverage Lawsuits from McDonald’s to Korean Air

You have heard about the woman who sued McDonalds and won $2.7 million after spilling a cup of coffee in her own lap. It became an exhibit in how we desperately needed tort reform. And yet the judgment made a lot of sense to anyone who actually went and learned the facts of the case.

Stella Liebeck didn’t actually get $2.7 million. She wound up with $480,000. But the original verdict was for (very real) medical expenses and two days of coffee sales for McDonalds as a way of saying the fast food chain needed to change its behavior.

And they did! They stopped serving coffee at a temperature that immediately caused third degree burns. By dialing it back to 158 °F there’s 60 seconds – or enough time to react to a spill and avoid burns.

McDonald’s in Bangkok

Leibeck wasn’t driving. The vehicle was stopped. She removed the coffee lid to add cream and sugar. The coffee spill caused extensive burns to her legs and groin. She needed skin grafts.

McDonald’s had received hundreds of documented complaints about the dangerous temperature at which they were serving coffee, and they conceded it was at a temperature where it couldn’t be consumed immediately. The jury found McDonald’s negligent.

We have a new McDonald’s coffee case from the skies.

A woman flying Korean Air flight 85 from New York JFK to Seoul Incheon last October is suing the carrier because a flight attendant “spilled a… cup of boiling hot coffee on [her] lap, causing her to sustain grievous personal injuries near her genital area, with attendant special damage.”

The lawsuit, which was just filed in New York State Supreme Court, says the passenger became “sick, sore, lame and disabled” and that her injuries are permanent.

Stella Liebeck spilled the coffee on herself. Korean Air spilled it on the passenger. That seems worse. And airlines are strictly liable for injuries on board. From an ethical standpoint, it seems to me relevant whether the proper coffee pots were catered (United once chose not to take a delay for proper coffee pots, and spilled a makeshift one) and the temperature at which coffee was spilled.

Korean has had several hot beverage spill injuries, for instance being sued in 2022 over tea spilled in a passenger’s lap burning ‘the area in between’ the woman’s thighs, which cased “permanent cosmetic deformity and scarring.” And in 2017 a lawsuit claimed that a flight attendant burned a passenger by serving a hot beverage during turbulence.

Complaints about tort law are usually that judgments are too punitive against companies, not that they aren’t punitive enough. Lawsuits are frequently more effective than legislators and regulators in generating changed behavior, and companies have a harder time lobbying jury vedicts than capturing the latter. Stella Liebec deserved her tort judgment against McDonalds. Was Korean Air at fault here, too?

(HT: Paul H)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. An opportunist tried a copycat McDonald’s case in England. The judge threw it out as meritless at the first hearing, charging costs to the plaintiff.

  2. This is why I HATE ambulance chasers and civil lawsuits. It allows all the grifters to have their hand out looking for a payout. If you don’t want hot coffee don’t order and if you do don’t spill it on yourself!

  3. @AC I do not want hot coffee nor do I spill it on myself. But when I sit in a plane in seat C and PAX A or B gets coffee on me then it is a problem

  4. FA spills, definitely liability. I disagree on the McDonald’s case, though–she did something she should have known was hazardous. She got burned worse than she would have expected due to the heat but I don’t think that’s very relevant as the fundamental error was hers.

  5. @AC, it was spilled *on* the passenger. Other than the general risk of ordering a hot liquid while in air (something taken as reasonable by 1,000s of travelers each day), I don’t see how the passenger owns any of the blame here.

  6. @Tomri … Agree . One of my two cautions on aircraft is to avoid any hot coffee because it does cause bodily injury ; I put a magazine and newspaper on my lap when hot coffee is about . My other caution is if an idiot drops a carry-on bag on my head from an overhead bin ; l’ll want a helmet then.

  7. With all due respect the Stella awards exist with good reason. First, the #1 complaint at McD for many years was that the coffee was not hot enough. Second, I don’t care how old and senile you are you don’t put a cuppa joe between your legs in a moving vehicle. It’s called contributory negligence.

    However we can all thank Stella for her stupidity as the result was a major common sense reform of tort law, and the only time Congress overrode a veto by Bill Clinton. Also SCOTUS decisions limited punitive damages.

    Finally this is why I never order hot beverages on airplanes. Too risky if the plane hits turbulence.

  8. Unsure of Delta or United as I normally fly American, but I’ll congratulate them on good coffee handling process: They always pour it over the aisle (or over the cart in the aisle), and then hand it to you directly (as opposed to placing it on your tray). At that point, you “own it”, and it’s safer for you and the FA. Bravo, American.

  9. Given that planes encounter frequent turbulence and flight attendants have to serve or pour things in narrow aisles next to passengers, it’s probably better to do away with all hot beverages. In the first place those water tanks should not be supplying water for anything other than hand washing. Using bottled water for coffee or tea is the only responsible thing to do but of course they don’t. Secondly, let people get their caffeine fix with cold beverages or a Coke. With the ridiculousness of the legal system, why have the risk with hot beverages. As passengers we shouldn’t trust these flight attendants with pouring either.

  10. I’ve flown on Korean Air recently and I find this story questionable. Coffee and tea go in a cup provided with meal service and the flight attendant has a tray that the cup is put on to fill it a bit more than half full. There is not anywhere near a measured cup of liquid. I cannot say for the coffee since I don’t drink it but the tea is hot but not so hot that it would cause such burns as described in the lawsuit. Further, since flight attendants are trained in safety, they would know that room temperature or colder water would counteract most of the burning if it was applied within seconds. In fact, most liquids available in an airplane cabin could be used as long as they weren’t hot.

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