When you think about lawyers and lawsuits in America, the McDonald’s hot coffee case might come to mind. A lot of people believe that the hot coffee case represents American justice gone awry. But you might not know the entire story.

The Stella Liebeck McDonald’s hot coffee case is actually a great example of how consumer rights can work to protect victims of unsafe products. The Stella Liebeck case made fast-food safer for all of us. Under the American justice system, those who are hurt by unsafe products should be able to work with a personal injury attorney to assert their rights. Here’s what you should know about the McDonald’s hot coffee case and your consumer rights.

Hot Coffee in Car

What Was the Mcdonald’s Hot Coffee Case?

The McDonald’s hot coffee case is a civil legal case brought by a woman named Stella Liebeck. Liebeck spilled McDonald’s hot coffee on her legs and suffered burns. She sought to hold McDonald’s responsible.

Hearing all of the evidence, the jury agreed. While many people think Liebeck received significant compensation for something as routine and predictable as spilled coffee, the Liebeck case is actually an example of products liability laws working to protect Liebeck and all consumers from unsafe products.

What Happened in the Stella Liebeck McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case?

In the Stella Liebeck McDonald’s hot coffee case, Liebeck went with her son to the McDonald’s drive through to get a coffee. Liebeck was 79 years old. She put the coffee in between her legs as many of us do when we have a drink in the car. The coffee spilled. Liebeck was not the one driving, and the vehicle was parked at the time.

Liebeck suffered serious burns. She required skin grafts. Of course, she had significant medical bills because of her injuries. She sought to hold McDonald’s accountable for her injuries as well as her pain and suffering.

What Are the Facts of the Stella Liebeck Case?

The jurors that heard the entire story agreed with Liebeck. They heard testimony that McDonald’s served its coffee too hot for anyone to drink and hot enough to cause burns. While most coffee you make at home is only about 140 degrees, the jurors heard that McDonald’s served their coffee at 180-190 degrees. There was testimony at the trial that McDonald’s knew that coffee at that temperature could burn the mouth and throat.

Jurors heard how McDonald’s had received hundreds of prior complaints about the temperature of their coffee. McDonald’s didn’t even provide a warning to consumers that their coffee was extra hot. The spill burned Liebeck’s skin in a matter of seconds.

The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case and Products Liability

The Stella Liebeck McDonald’s hot coffee case is an example of a products liability claim. Products liability is a legal grounds for holding a company responsible for a defective product. The area of law is civil, so it’s not a crime. But products liability gives consumers that are hurt by unsafe products a legal avenue to seek compensation and hold the company responsible for selling an unsafe product.

Implied Warranty in Products Liability Cases

In the McDonald’s case, there was evidence that McDonald’s knew the coffee was unreasonably hot. However, proving that the producer knows they’re selling an unsafe product isn’t even a requirement. A manufacturer has what’s called an implied warranty for all of their products. That means when you buy a product, you can have confidence that it’s going to work for it’s intended purpose.

Before Hot Coffee Spill

When you buy fast food coffee, you can have confidence that you’re getting a cup of coffee that’s safe to drink. Fast food companies know that people buy their coffee to take in their cars. Fast food companies know that people expect to receive their coffee at a temperature that’s safe.

Your Consumer Rights in Nevada

As a consumer, you have the right to expect the products you buy to work for the purpose that they’re intended. If they don’t, and you’re hurt as a result, you have the right to hold the company responsible for your damages. Nevada law protects consumers when unsafe products injure them. The responsibility is on the manufacturer of the product to sell products that are safe.

Products Liability and Comparative Negligence

Of course, it’s up to consumers to use products carefully. You may use a product for its intended purpose or a reasonable foreseeable purpose. For example, you buy coffee with the expectation of holding and drinking it. If the coffee is too hot and you get hurt, you likely have a claim against the fast food company for products liability.

On the other hand, if you buy the coffee and throw it on your windshield to melt ice, and the wind blows the hot coffee on your legs and causes burns, your recovery is likely going to be reduced or barred completely. It’s up to you to use what you buy for its intended purpose or some other foreseeable purpose. You must do your part to use products carefully. Nevada’s rule requiring consumers to use products carefully is called comparative negligence.

Stella Liebeck and Punitive Damages

A lot of people believe that Stella Liebeck received an outrageous amount for spilled coffee. While it’s true that the jury awarded Liebeck more than her actual losses, part of the compensation was to punish McDonald’s for selling a dangerous product. There was evidence that the company knew their coffee was dangerous and likely to cause harm. The purpose of punitive damages is to punish the company for acting in a dangerous way.

In Nevada, there are laws that establish guidelines for these kinds of damages. Nevada Revised Statutes 42.005 lists the rules for punitive damages in Nevada. While you may have heard that there are limits to punitive damages in Nevada, these limits don’t apply in products liability cases. If you demonstrate that the manufacturer acted with oppression, fraud or malice, you can ask the court to award punitive damages as a way of punishing the manufacturer.

Products Liability Attorneys in Nevada

A personal injury attorney works on behalf of their client when an unsafe product hurts the client. Our skilled attorneys in Nevada are proud of our track record of helping clients get justice and helping all of society make products safer. If you or a loved one is hurt by an unsafe product, contact us today to talk about your case.


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Adam S. Kutner

Adam S. Kutner Personal Injury Lawyer

With more than 30 years of experience fighting for victims of personal injury in the Las Vegas valley, Attorney Adam S. Kutner knows his way around the Nevada court system and how to get clients their settlement promptly and trouble-free.