McDonald’s Coffee Spill Heard Around the World

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The major issues in the Liebeck case and the following incidents

In the Liebeck case, the major issues result from an accident that occurred on Stella Lieback. Liebeck had ordered hot coffee from a McDonald’s drive-through. In the course of opening the lid, the coffee spilled on her, causing third-degree burns on her groin, inner thigh, and buttocks. Liebeck was hospitalized for one week and spent more weeks recuperating and undergoing skin graft during which time her daughters were forced to stay with their mother, taking care of her. The family filed for a lawsuit on the grounds of out-of-pocket expenses she incurred, pain, and lost wages of the daughters. The lawsuit also alleged that McDonald’s was negligent of its customers’ safety by selling extremely hot and dangerous coffee (Carroll and Bucholtz, 2006).

Other incidents ensued after the Liebeck case. In 2000, Karen Muth suffered second-degree burns during an accident in which a McDonald’s handicapped employee spilled hot coffee on her lap. The handicap of the employee made it difficult for her to grip the cardboard tray which fell together with the cup of coffee on the plaintiff’s lap. Through her lawyer, Muth filed for a lawsuit but the details of the settlement were not disclosed. A third of hot coffee-related occurred in 2004. This case involved a 70-year-old granny who suffered third-degree burns on her legs as a result of spilled hot coffee. This case resembles Liebeck’s case. In yet another incident, a McDonald’s customer suffered second-degree burns and permanent scars on her chin when a hot pickle from a McDonald’s hamburger fell on her chin. Veronica Martin sued McDonald for $110,000, claiming that the burn caused her physical and psychological harm. In addition, her husband sued the company for $15,000 arguing that the burn deprived him of his wife’s services and relations. This case was settled out of court (Carroll and Bucholtz, 2006).

McDonald’s social responsibilities vs. consumers’ responsibilities

McDonald’s, being a fast-food restaurant, has several social responsibilities towards its customers. First and foremost, the company is responsible for the safety of its customers. The company is therefore required to sell products that are not likely to cause any physical, psychological, or mental harm to its customers. In Liebeck’s case, for instance, the coffee sold was “unreasonably dangerous and defectively manufactured,” (Carroll and Bucholtz, 2006, p. 691). Second, it was argued in the case that the selling of the extremely hot coffee was the main reason why McDonald’s sells a billion cups of hot coffee annually. What this implies is that McDonald’s values its profits more than the safety of its customers. This should not be the case. Third, McDonald’s is responsible for upholding the law. In the Karen Muth case, McDonald’s employment of a handicapped employee is a reflection of the company’s legal responsibility. However, the company should also ensure that such actions are taken with the safety of customers in mind. For instance, the handicapped employee could be given a different task which would minimize her possibilities of causing accidents.

In fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s, customers also have responsibilities. Customers are responsible for handling dangerous products such as hot coffee carefully and with utmost caution. In the Liebeck’s case, for instance, the petitioner could have easily avoided the accident by placing the cup of hot coffee away from her as she opened the lid. Alternatively, she could have immediately leaped out of her seat once she noticed that the coffee was spilling. A company like McDonald’s can manage to give its customers what they ask for and at the same time uphold their safety. This can be done by giving the customers’ warning about the products they demand. In the case of hot coffee, this goal has been achieved by the label that is placed on the cup which says “Caution: Contents Hot!” Customers who order for the hot coffee will see the label and will try to handle it carefully (Carroll and Bucholtz, 2006).

Arguments supporting both sides of the Liebeck case

The arguments supporting McDonald’s in the Liebeck case are two. First, the defense lawyers argued that the petitioner ordered the hot coffee being fully aware of its extremely high temperatures. In short, the petitioner wanted the coffee exactly as it was. Second, the defense argued that the petitioner was negligent and careless in handling the coffee given the fact that it was very hot. Negligence and carelessness were evident when Liebeck placed the cup of hot coffee between her knees and when she failed to leap from her seat when the coffee started spilling. The arguments supporting Liebeck in the Liebeck’s case are also two. The jury argued that McDonald’s had engaged in “willful, reckless, malicious, or wanton conduct,” (Carroll and Bucholtz, 2006, p. 692). By selling the extremely hot, dangerous, and defectively manufactured coffee, the company was grossly negligent of its customers’ safety. Second, the McDonald’s hot coffee that burned Liebeck caused grave physical harm and tremendous pain on Liebeck. Third, the accident from the hot coffee forced Liebeck to incur huge financial expenses through hospitalization, treatment and the skin graft that she had to undergo. It also deprived Liebeck’s daughters of their wages for the weeks they spent taking care of her.

If I had been a juror

If I had been a juror in the Liebeck’s case, I would have supported Liebeck for a number of reasons. First, McDonald’s coffee is a dangerous product that should not be sold to customers with such a high degree of temperatures. The company ought to put the safety of its customers before its profit-driven business (Kotler and Lee, 2005). Making the company liable for the harm caused on McDonald’s would help the company to be more responsible. Second, the quality-assurance supervision that was conducted following the lawsuit showed that hundreds of burn complaints had previously been made by McDonald’s customers. Despite this high number of complaints, McDonalds’ had refused to lower its coffee’s temperatures (Feinman, 2006). This showed that McDonald’s was negligent of its customers and failed to value their safety more than its profits. Supporting Liebeck would thus make McDonald’s more responsible for its customers’ safety. In addition, it would serve as a warning to other similar fast food restaurants that reap in millions of dollars in profit from selling products that are not only a threat to customers’ safety but also a threat t their general health. If I were a juror in the pickle burn case, I would also have supported the petitioner, Veronica Martin for the same reasons discussed above: gross negligence on the part of McDonald’s.

The coffee burn cases v. the pickle burn case

One similarity of the coffee burn cases and the pickle burn case is that in all the cases, the customers suffered severe burns on different parts of their bodies, forcing the customers to incur huge hospital expenses. A second similarity between the cases is that all of them involved a McDonald’s product that was produced in extremely high temperatures. The products were therefore dangerous and posed a big threat to the safety of the restaurant’s customers. A third similarity between the cases is that an out-of-court settlement was involved. In the Liebeck’s case, the out-of-court settlement was done to put an end to the appeals made by the petitioner after jury slashed the award by more than 75 percent. In the pickle burn case of Veronica Martin, the out-of-court settlement was done from the beginning and therefore prevented the case from being judged in courts (Carroll and Bucholtz, 2006).

There are a number of differences between the coffee burn cases and the pickle burn case. One difference is the use of a trial court. In the Liebeck’s case, McDonald’s refused to settle the case out of court hence the case was tried in court. The out-of-court settlement was only used towards the end of the trial as an effort by the restaurant to put an end to the appeals made by the petitioner after jury slashed the award by more than 75 percent. On the other hand, the pickle burn case was settled out of court hence it was not tried in court. The second difference between the cases is the significant role played by the petitioners in causing the accidents. In the Liebeck’s case, the petitioner was partly responsible for the accident and the burns that ensued. Liebeck did not take any precaution when handling the coffee and when opening the lid. She also failed to take precautions when the coffee started spilling. Precautions would have prevented the accident or at least minimized the extent of the burns caused by the spill. In the pickle burn case, the petitioner is not responsible in any way for the burn. The pickle burn case therefore represents a more serious threat to consumers because the burn caused was entirely a result of McDonald’s dangerous products. McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants should lower the temperatures of their hot foods to prevent similar incidents from occurring (Carroll and Bucholtz, 2006).

The Stella Awards

The Stella Awards is a program that seeks to recognize the most outrageous lawsuits of the year. My view of the program is that it seems to support businesses and their profit-driven motives at the expense of the customers’ safety and health. Many customers around the globe have suffered serious physical, emotional and psychological as a result of purchasing and using dangerous products from businesses. A great percentage of such incidents go unreported. This is the main reason why businesses continue to fail to take responsibility for their actions. Lawsuits such as the Liebeck’s case bring to light the many injustices caused on human beings by profit-driven businesses. Such lawsuits also help many other victims of gross negligence to come forward and report their incidents. The Stella Awards program is therefore discriminatory against customers and fails to recognize the abuse they go through on a daily basis in the hands of businesses (Carroll and Bucholtz, 2006).

Implications of the lawsuits on businesses

The lawsuits filed against McDonald’s have great implications for the future operations of the restaurant. First, they would force the restaurant and others of its ilk to take more responsibilities for their customers. This means that businesses would now be forced to produce products that are safe for their customers’ consumption, for instance, by selling products that have reasonable temperatures (Kerin, Hartley, and Rudelius, 2003). Second, McDonald’s and other restaurants would be forced to employ employees who do not pose a threat to their customers’ safety while at the same time conforming to local and national laws and regulations. In the case of Karen Muth, for instance, the handicapped employee would have been assigned different duties other than serving customers, a duty that is likely to be associated with accidents due to her handicap.

We live in a world of human rights. Many human rights organizations have come up that fight for the rights and justice of the underprivileged and politically weak individuals. Individuals are also more aware of their rights as human beings and as customers. As a result, incidents such as burns caused as a result of a company’s negligence are most likely to be brought to limelight. Businesses are increasingly forced to take responsibilities for their actions and for their customers’ safety (Kotler and Lee, 2005). At the same time, businesses are also fighting for their right to produce customer-focused products and to earn profits. As a result, they businesses also fight against lawsuits in which accidents were caused by the negligence on the part of the customer. In short, we live in an era in which all individuals, be they businesses or customers are forced to take responsibilities and pay the repercussions for their own actions (Fuller, 2001).


Carroll, A. B. (2006). Business & society: Ethics and stakeholder management. Mason, Ohio: South-Western.

Feinman, J.M. (2006). Law one hundred and one. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fuller, G.W. (2001). Food consumers and the food industry: catastrophe or opportunity? New York: CRC Press.

Kerin, R., Hartley, S.W. & Rudelius, W. (2003). Marketing: The Core. New York: McGraw Hill Professional.

Kotler, C. & Lee, N. (2005). Corporate social responsibility: doing the most good for your company and your cause. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Levenson, B.M. (2001). Habeas codfish: reflections on food and the law. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.

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