In 1994, one of the most famous civil verdicts in American history was rendered. On August 18th of that year, a New Mexico jury awarded 81-year-old Stella Liebeck nearly $2.9 million in damages after she was burned by McDonald’s coffee that had spilled in her lap. The case sent shockwaves through the legal community, became a poster child for tort reform, and continues to be a running pop-culture joke even now, two decades later.
But believe it or not, plaintiffs are still suing the fast-food giant over the temperature of its coffee. In a recent New York case, Khanimov v. McDonald’s Corporation, 2014 WL 5461641 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. App. Div. Oct. 29, 2014), the plaintiff sued both McDonald’s and the franchisee who owned and operated the restaurant. The plaintiff claimed that he slipped and fell at a Brooklyn McDonald’s and was burned by hot coffee that he had just been served. He alleged that the coffee was unreasonably hot and therefore dangerous. Initially, the trial court dismissed the suit.
But the Appellate Division reinstated the plaintiff’s hot-coffee claim. As the court explained, “[u]nder New York law, a defendant may properly be held liable for the personal injuries caused by the service of a beverage that, because of its excessive temperature, was unreasonably dangerous for its intended use, and the drinking or other use of which presented a danger that was not reasonably contemplated by the consumer” (citations omitted). In this case, the Appellate Division concluded that there was conflicting evidence on the issue of whether the coffee was unreasonably hot, and sent the case back for trial on that issue. Thus, Liebeck’s legacy lives on, at least in New York state court.
Interestingly, the Liebeck case is still hotly debated (pun intended) by legal experts, media scholars, and pop-culture historians alike. The New York Times 2013 video titled, “Liebeck v. McDonald’s: The Big Burn,” http://youtu.be/pCkL9UlmCOE, attempts to debunk what it characterizes as certain misconceptions about the case. As of this writing the 12-minute video has been viewed more than 2.7 million times on YouTube. HBO has also released a feature-length documentary about the case, titled Hot Coffee, which purports to “reveal what really happened to Stella Liebeck, … how and why the case garnered so much media attention, who funded the effort and to what end.” The official website for the film is www.hotcoffeethemovie.com.
 McDonald’s Corporation was not a party to the appeal.
Photo courtesy of Victor Camilo via Creative Commons