McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case and the Customer Experience


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We all know that the coffee McDonald’s sells is too hot to drink when served.

If you put it to your lips, you’ll most likely receive a burn that will be far worse than anything most people have ever encountered. So why do they make their coffee so hot? And how does this affect the customer experience?

By now you must have heard about the famous “McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case”.  Here is the back story…

The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case and the Customer Experience

“In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck bought a cup of takeout coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque and spilled it on her lap. She sued McDonald’s and a jury awarded her nearly $3 million in punitive damages for the burns she suffered.

The coffee was not just “hot,” but dangerously hot. McDonald’s corporate policy was to serve it at a temperature that could cause serious burns in seconds. Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries were far from frivolous. She was wearing sweatpants that absorbed the coffee and kept it against her skin. She suffered third-degree burns (the most serious kind) and required skin grafts on her inner thighs and elsewhere.

Liebeck’s case was far from an isolated event. McDonald’s had received more than 700 previous reports of injury from its coffee, including reports of third-degree burns, and had paid settlements in some cases.

Here is some evidence that the jury heard during the trial:

  • McDonald’s operations manual required the franchisee to hold its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit. Coffee at that temperature, if spilled, causes third-degree burns in three to seven seconds.
  • The chairman of the department of mechanical engineering and biomechanical engineering at the University of Texas testified that this risk of harm is unacceptable, as did a widely recognized expert on burns, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation, the leading scholarly publication in the specialty.
  • McDonald’s admitted it had known about the risk of serious burns from its scalding hot coffee for more than 10 years. The risk had repeatedly been brought to its attention through numerous other claims and suits.
  • An expert witness for the company testified that the number of burns was insignificant compared to the billions of cups of coffee the company served each year.
  • At least one juror later told the Wall Street Journal she thought the company wasn’t taking the injuries seriously. To the corporate restaurant giant, those 700 injury cases caused by hot coffee seemed relatively rare compared to the millions of cups of coffee served. But, the juror noted, “there was a person behind every number, and I don’t think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that.”
  • McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that McDonald’s coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into Styrofoam cups, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat.
  • McDonald’s admitted at trial that consumers were unaware of the extent of the risk of serious burns from spilled coffee served at McDonald’s then-required temperature.
  • McDonald’s admitted it did not warn customers of the nature and extent of this risk and could offer no explanation as to why it did not.”

***(Story is taken from the Consumer Attorneys of California website,

So, what can we take away from this case, besides the obvious fact that the coffee as served is too hot for consumption?

That McDonald’s doesn’t care about the safety of their customers even after being repeatedly told, and sued, about the coffee’s temperature.

But some may say that McDonald’s is doing what they believe is best because “The company claimed to do that because it “made the coffee taste better.” *

The Company Best Practices Don’t Match the Customer’s Needs

How can a company be at fault when practices and policies are put in place to do what they believe is best for their customers? They wanted the best possible coffee taste. McDonald’s designed their coffee brewing processes to address that. So what’s the problem?

Well, as pointed out in the jury case, “there is a person behind every number” and there are at least 700 people who have been injured. That should make for immediate and substantive changes to the procedures of ANY business. But it still hasn’t happened. The coffee is still being brewed to between 180 and 190 degrees. How do I know?

RELATED POST (About McDonald’s): How to Send the Message That You Care to be Your Best Every Day

I stopped by a local McDonald’s store the other day to get a breakfast sandwich with coffee after an early shopping trip. The drive-thru line was short as was our wait for food. I was in the passenger seat and my wife was driving as we pulled into one of the store’s parking spots to eat our food. Of course, the coffee was too hot to drink so I wound up finishing my sandwich before I could even think of taking a sip of coffee.

How Was My McDonald’s Customer Experience?

My experience was awful. Think about this…

In what other situation do you eat an entire meal without being able to have a beverage with it. It’s not that I was prevented from having a beverage, right? The store didn’t refuse my request or delay serving me. But common sense told me that I should not risk third-degree burns for the privilege of having a sip of coffee. What other business routinely offers a product that their customers cannot use as intended without risk of bodily harm? I can’t think of any, can you?

Customer Service vs Customer Experience

So much focus is put on customer service and not enough on customer experience. The service was fine but remember that service is the mechanical act of doing something for your customer. Customer experience is how you make one feel during the servicing of the customer.

I couldn’t enjoy the product I purchased until well after my meal was over, and when we reached back home. I sat in the driveway with coffee cup in hand and finally had my caffeine fix.

How did this make me feel? Well, slightly foolish. I wondered why I went there for breakfast when I already knew the coffee would be too hot to drink.

Loyal customers are a fickle bunch. They’ll only take so much going wrong until they move on to another business that suits them better. With billions of coffee cups served each year, does McDonald’s care about me? Apparently not.

But what about YOUR business? Do you care about each customer and continually adjust your product or service to address any customer concerns? I hope so.

Please make the experience the best possible for EVERY customer who enters your door.

#mcdonalds, #scaldinghotcoffee

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Steve DiGioia
Steve uses his 20+ years of experience in the hospitality industry to help companies and their employees improve service, increase morale and provide the experience their customers' desire. Author of "Earn More Tips On Your Very Next Shift...Even If You're a Bad Waiter" and named an "ICMI Top 50 Customer Service Thought Leader" and a "Top Customer Service Influencer" by CCW Digital, Steve continues his original customer service, leadership and management-based writings on his popular blog.


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