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Serving Napa, Marin and Solano Counties

A frivolous lawsuit? The notorious McDonald's coffee spill

When the phrase “frivolous lawsuit” is mentioned, people often remember the elderly woman who spilled a hot cup of McDonald’s coffee into her lap. The incident has become engrained in the public’s opinion as that of unnecessary lawsuits run amok. However, many Californians are unaware of the truth surrounding the notorious scalding coffee case.

Treehugger explains that in 1992, the woman accidentally spilled the contents of her beverage into her lap after ordering at a McDonald’s drive-thru. When knowledge of the resulting lawsuit went public, the 79-year-old woman faced ridicule that continues to this day, as an example of someone who sued a company over something that should have been obvious – that hot beverages are indeed hot, and can cause burns.

However, many people do not understand that most McDonald’s restaurants served coffee close to temperatures of 190 degrees Fahrenheit – what medical professionals consider an unnecessarily high temperature that can cause severe burns in seconds. The woman suffered third degree burns on over 16 percent of her body and endured weeks of hospitalization, painful skin grafts and other treatments. After McDonald’s refused her original request to settle for $20,000, she took the restaurant chain to court and was awarded $200,000 and $2.7 million in compensatory and punitive damages, respectively. Later, those amounts were reduced to $160,000 and $480,000.

To this day, many establishments serve hot beverages between 160 and 185 degrees Fahrenheit. However, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, test subjects preferred their hot beverage temperatures at an average of 140 degrees. Of course, consumer safety is a valid concern regarding beverage temperature, a fact that the coffee spill victim considered when bringing a lawsuit against McDonald’s.

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