McDonalds Coffee Spill Lawsuit Revisited: United Airlines Spilled Scalding Drink On Child

You may be familiar with — and even outraged by — the famous lawsuit against McDonald’s by Stella Liebeck who was burned by hot coffee.

The jury’s $2.7 million award has long been a poster child for tort reform (the judge actually reduced her award to $480,000). What’s often missed is that:

  • The award was medical expenses and two days’ profit from coffee
  • Immediately after the award fast food restaurants started serving coffee at around 158 °F — a temperature where it will take 60 seconds to cause third degree burns (enough time to react to a spill and avoid burns).

McDonald’s in Bangkok

The plaintiff in the case wasn’t driving. She was the passenger, the car was stopped, and she removed the coffee lid to add cream and sugar. The coffee spill caused extensive burns to her legs and her groin. She needed skin grafts.

What’s more, 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. So McDonald’s was deemed negligent.

We now have a new McDonald’s case from the skies. Paddle Your Own Kanoo reports on the conclusion to a National Transport Safety Board investigation of a spilled coffee incident on United Airlines.

On June 26, 2016 United flight UA430 from New Orleans to Chicago O’Hare declared a medical emergency and diverted to Little Rock. Hot coffee had spilled on a child. First aid was provided by a doctor traveling as a passenger on board.

The four flight attendants working the flight told the NTSB that they weren’t using ‘safe pour lids’ for the coffee, because they hadn’t been catered, so they placed a plastic cup in the pot’s spout instead and placed the pot on the top of the service cart, instead of in a tray in the cart where it should have been.

The flight attendants had got to row seven in their in-flight service when one had to return to the galley. The other flight attendant turned their back on the cart for one moment but suddenly heard screaming. It’s still not known whether the coffee pot tipped over or was grabbed by the child who was quickly attended to by a doctor who happened to be on the flight.

United knew this could be an issue which is why they use safe pour lids on coffee pots.

    Ronald McDoanld Takes to the Skies!

Complaints about tort law are usually that judgments are too punitive against companies, not that they aren’t punitive enough. Lawsuits are often more effective than legislators and regulators, and companies have a harder time lobbying the former than capturing the latter. Stella Liebec deserved her tort judgment against McDonalds and United appears to have been at fault here, too.

United should have boarded the missing safety item, then no one would have been burned. D0 matters, but ignoring a miscater in this case mattered for safety.

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. These lawsuits have no relation :

    McDonalds – the customer spilled the coffee all on her own. Took the lid off of HOT coffee and spilled.

    United – did not cater the proper pouring lids and spilled on the customer.

  2. Airlines need to be held responsible for stuff like this.

    I have had food spilled on me as flight attendants hastily separate “compostable” and “recyclable” items. Look, I’m for environmental conservation as much as anyone, but if you cannot achieve it WITHOUT SPILLING ALL YOUR FUCKING SHIT ON MY FUCKING CLOTHES THEN YOU NEED A GODDAMN NOTHER IDEA MOR-FUCKING-RONS

  3. Most people who have a “It’s time for tort reform” position on the original McDonald’s coffee spill lawsuit change their tune when shown pictures of how horribly burnt that old lady was from the coffee.

    McDonald’s served coffee far too hot for consumption. They knew they were doing it. They didn’t change things. The end.

    – Stella Liebeck was a 79-year-old woman in Albuquerque, New Mexico, whose grandson drove her to McDonald’s in 1992. She was in a parked car when the coffee spilled.

    – Liebeck acknowledged that the spill was her fault. What she took issue with was that the coffee was so ridiculously hot — at up to 190 degrees Fahrenheit, near boiling point — that it caused third-degree burns on her legs and genitals, nearly killing her and requiring extensive surgery to treat.

    – McDonald’s apparently knew that this was unsafe. In the decade before Liebeck’s spill, McDonald’s had received 700 reports of people burning themselves. McDonald’s admitted that its coffee was a hazard at such high temperatures. But it continued the practice, enforced by official McDonald’s policy, of heating up its coffee to near-boiling point. (McDonald’s claimed customers wanted the coffee this hot.)

    – Liebeck didn’t want to go to court. She just wanted McDonald’s to pay her medical expenses, estimated at $20,000. McDonald’s only offered $800, leading her to file a lawsuit in 1994.

    – After hearing the evidence, the jury concluded that McDonald’s handling of its coffee was so irresponsible that Liebeck should get much more than $20,000, suggesting she get nearly $2.9 million to send the company a message. Liebeck settled for less than $600,000. And McDonald’s began changing how it heats up its coffee.

    CONSIDER YOURSELF WARNED – Here is how devastating those burns were:

  4. Airlines should not be serving any hot liquids in areas of the cabin where people are seated immediately next to each other. Only allow in it in F and J pod type seats. If I were FAA Administrator, this would be one of my first regulatory initiatives.

  5. @Rich – Agree. People should watch the documentary ‘Hot Coffee’ from 2011. It explains that most of the huge sum was punitive damages, i.e. damages meant to send McDonald’s a message, not damages that were actually incurred by the plaintiff.

  6. The documentary Hot Coffee is highly educational and really sheds light on the power of large companies to control and spin stories so the American public ends up somehow feeling sorry for these companies when they are at fault. Stella Liebeck was horribly burned and the burn was the fault of McDonalds. She had the coffee cup between her thighs to stabilize it while she poured cream and sugar in it. The lid popped off and the scalding coffee caused horrible third degree burns. McDonalds had hundreds of previous complaints of the coffee cup lids popping off and of the coffee being too hot. They did nothing. When Stella got burned, their PR agency spun the story very quickly to victim-blame and the world thought of Ms Liebeck as the enemy. McDonalds refused to pay her medical bills and therefore she had no choice but to sue.

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