Flight Attendant Spilled Burning Coffee on Woman, Rushed Her Topless to the Lavatory

You’ve probably heard of the famous lawsuit against McDonald’s over spilled coffee. Stella Liebeck who was burned by hot coffee and a jury awarded her $2.7 million (the judge actually reduced her award to $480,000). What’s often missed is that:

  • The award was medical expenses and two days’ profit from coffee
  • Immediately after the award fast food restaurants started serving coffee at around 158 °F — a temperature where it will take 60 seconds to cause third degree burns (enough time to react to a spill and avoid burns).

McDonald’s in Bangkok

The car was stopped and Liebeck removed the coffee lid to add cream and sugar. The coffee spill caused extensive burns to her legs and her groin. She needed skin grafts. McDonald’s had received hundreds of documented complaints about the dangerous temperature at which they were serving coffee, and they conceded it was at a temperature where it couldn’t be consumed immediately. So McDonald’s was deemed negligent.

A year ago Virgin Australia was sued after coffee slid off a tray table onto a 15 year old boy. The family claimed the airline refused to keep giving them water for the burn, preferring to save bottled water for business class passengers.

    Ronald McDoanld Takes to the Skies!

Now a Southwest Airlines passenger says that on Monday morning’s Southwest Airlines flight WN268 from Phoenix to Albuquerque “she was woken by scorching hot coffee soaking through her heavy sweater and onto her skin.”

The passenger reports that a flight attendant “yanked off her sweater and rushed her to the bathroom.” The woman “was completely exposed” and the “front half of the plane could see [her] completely exposed” while she cried. Though she didn’t have the hot coffee soaked sweater burning her further.

On arrival in Albuquerque she sought medical attention for first and second degree burns on her left arm and her hands.

I hope the woman recovers quickly — and whatever the outcome of her complaint that hot drinks won’t become less available on board. I get frustrated with airlines that won’t serve coffee with the seatbelt sign on. I’d be happy to sign a waiver of liability in exchange for my coffee..!

(HT: Points Miles and Martinis)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I guess she wasn’t wearing a bra? I’m not saying the flight attendant wasn’t liable for the spill but the removal of the sweater and rushing her to the restroom was likely the flight attendant trying to do everything she could to help. Would she have preferred the flight attendant just stand there and let her burn as the coffee came through? Sure maybe the flight attendant could have had her remove the sweater in the seat and given her a blanket to cover herself before moving to the lavatory but it sounds like the flight attendant acted rapidly and maybe this was part of her training. I would think that there is training on what to do if you or a passenger spills hot coffee on a passenger or themselves because its bound to happen with sudden turbulence.

  2. removing the sweater was the correct thing to do – burns have to be treated immediately with cool fluid (such as water in the bathroom) – every second you wait, the burnt skin which is still hot will keep burning the tissue underneath. The hot sweater would have exacerbated the burns.
    As unfortunate as it is that she was exposed, preventing injury was more important.

  3. I’m actually surprised spills DON’T happen more often! Speaks to how well-trained and skillful flight attendants really are!

  4. McDonald’s profit on coffee has zero relevance to the award. If you think McDonald’s should pay simply because it makes a lot of money on coffee, then it would be reasonable to conclude that the woman should pay McDonald’s if it turned out that coffee was a loss leader.

    The reason is would make no sense for the woman to pay McDonalds is the same reason it makes no sense for McDonalds to pay the woman if McDonald’s did nothing besides make money.

  5. I’m surprised there aren’t at Airlines that we’ve cold brew coffee. Personally I hate cold brew taste and think that it’s a fad for cafes to charge more for an inferior product that has been marketed to seem artisanal and superior, but it’s trendy with the third wave coffee scene and younger consumers might like it.

  6. This scenario is preferable to a 3rd degree burn or to a foul baseball striking a spectator in the ballpark. Certainly another passenger or crew offered a jacket or blanket very quickly, right? Or did no one offer assistance?
    Either way, air travel is not predictable like a table at a restaurant. Customers assume a certain amount of risk from the second they board until they arrive at their destination.

  7. @leef33: This is not at all similar to being struck by a foul ball, or even a fair ball (home run). You specifically assume certain risks in attending a baseball game. It’s well-decided law.
    I don’t think you assume the risk of hot coffee being accidentally spilled on you when you board a plane. I’m sure there are situations where the airline would not be liable, but this isn’t like a baseball game, except that the flight attendant only got to second base.

  8. @Art – the point about McDonalds profits is that they were on notice about the danger but ignored the danger, so looking for an appropriate cost to them for doing so some amount of their profits from the activities makes sense.

  9. The passenger was asleep so doubtful it was her coffee.
    The flight attendant, doesn’t say if it was a male or female, yanked off her sweater and some of you are cimmending this? Then questioning if she was wearing a bra?

    Typically if you are in a public place and spill something hot on your clothing, you pull the fabricaway from your skin, not strip down.

  10. The McDonald’s case was entirely the customer’s on fault. She shouldn’t drink and drive. If you take that risk then you take the consequences. It is a textbook example of someone trying to avoid the consequences of their own actions. As a result of this kind of frivolous lawsuit we all pay more or things or are denied things (e.g. hot coffee).

  11. @Gary Leff: Irrelevant. She spilt it on herself. The injuries were entirely her own fault. The only reason to sue McDonald’s was to get more money from Gary Leff’s (and other customers) pockets.

    That is why other suits referring to coffee at similar temperatures failed. E.g.
    In McMahon v. Bunn Matic Corporation (1998), Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote a unanimous opinion affirming dismissal of a similar lawsuit against coffeemaker manufacturer Bunn-O-Matic, finding that 179 °F (82 °C) hot coffee was not “unreasonably dangerous”.[26] (quoted in Wikipedia)

    Interestingly, a copycat case came up in the UK. At the opening hearing the judge dismissed the case — assigning McDonald’s legal costs to the plaintiff (In Bogle v. McDonald’s Restaurants Ltd.)(2002).

  12. @Paul. Have someone read this to you (since you obviously cannot read yourself).

    “In 1994, a spokesman for the National Coffee Association said that the temperature of McDonald’s coffee conformed to industry standards.[2] An “admittedly unscientific” survey by the LA Times that year found that coffee was served between 157 and 182 °F, and that two coffee outlets tested, one Burger King and one Starbucks, served hotter coffee than McDonald’s.[32″

  13. @Gary Leff: And hre was the rationale..
    “Judge Field of the Queen’s Bench wrote: “If this submission be right, McDonald’s should not have served drinks at any temperature which would have caused a bad scalding injury. The evidence is that tea or coffee served at a temperature of 65 °C [149 °F] will cause a deep thickness burn if it is in contact with the skin for just two seconds. Thus, if McDonald’s were going to avoid the risk of injury by a deep thickness burn they would have had to have served tea and coffee at between 55 °C and 60 °C. [131–140 °F] But tea ought to be brewed with boiling water if it is to give its best flavour and coffee ought to be brewed at between 85 °C and 95 °C. [185–203 °F] Further, people generally like to allow a hot drink to cool to the temperature they prefer. Accordingly, I have no doubt that tea and coffee served at between 55 °C and 60 °C would not have been acceptable to McDonald’s customers. Indeed, on the evidence, I find that the public want to be able to buy tea and coffee served hot, that is to say at a temperature of at least 65 °C, even though they know (as I think they must be taken to do for the purposes of answering issues (1) and (2)) that there is a risk of a scalding injury if the drink is spilled.” Bogle & Ors v McDonald’s Restaurants Ltd. [2002] EWHC 490, at 33″

  14. @achalk — perhaps do some research before you post please. McDonald’s had over 700 prior complaints that their coffee was served at a temperature that would cause 1st or 2nd degree burns upon contact. They did it on purpose. They then offered free refills. Nobody would hang out in a fast food restaurant long enough to allow the first coffee to cool to get their “refill” thereby saving them $—and yes this is in part about $. The woman who was burned sustained life threatening injuries that required skin grafts and incurred over 20k in medical bills for same. The jury awarded 2 days net McD’s corporate profits because they concluded that was reasonable given Mcd’s actual notice. If anything, it was a conservative jury. I’d suggest you see the movie “Hot Coffee” instead of offering a citation from a British Judge about his/her preference about the heat of tea. At 156 degrees, it would take one second to realize a 3rd degree burn. At 203 degrees…ugh. McD’s should have gotten hit a lot harder than it did…and of course the judge reduced the judgment to 400k and then McD’s appealed that and the parties later settled for a confidential sum….This case goes down as one of the worst jobs of reporting about a court decision ever—–right up there w/the welfare queens and their Cadillacs…

  15. @bigbirdwithsilverwings: A single McDonald’s serves more than 700 coffees in under a day. Nobody is complaining about the temperature! 700 = 0%! 99.9% don’t say anything because to them there is no problem with the temperature.

    “In 1994, a spokesman for the National Coffee Association said that the temperature of McDonald’s coffee conformed to industry standards.[2]”

    If the consequences of coffee at ordinary accepted temperatures are so ghastly why did she carry it in a car? What an idiot! Help her and others like her by making her responsible for her actions.

    Incidentally…as proof that this is a textbook case of a frivolous lawsuit, it was tried again and again by money grabbing lawyers and

    “Detractors have argued that McDonald’s refusal to offer more than an $800 settlement for the $10,500 in medical bills indicated that the suit was meritless and highlighted the fact that Liebeck spilled the coffee on herself rather than any wrongdoing on the company’s part.[20][21][22] They also argued that the coffee was not defective because McDonald’s coffee conformed to industry standards,[2] and coffee continues to be served as hot or hotter today at McDonald’s and chains like Starbucks.[23][needs update]”

    ” They further stated that the vast majority of judges who consider similar cases dismiss them before they get to a jury.[24]”

    (all quotes from Wikipedia).

    What you should be doing is getting down on your knees and thanking McDonald’s for serving their coffee at the temperature their customers want — not the temperature some money grabbing lawyer thinks we need.

    You should also thank other establishments that have also been victims of these frivolous lawsuits for doing likewise “Chick-Fil-A,[28] Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s, Burger King,[29] hospitals,[30]”.

    They make your life so much better. You are SO lucky.

  16. achalk, You posted incorrect information. McDonalds acknowledged that their coffee was being served far too hot, it was not ordinary accepted temperature and reduced the serving temperature after this injury. They had had many previous complaints about the temperature before that incident, including my own, and I was not injured.

  17. achalk, the Court and justice system examined all of the facts thoroughly and found that the McDonalds case was not frivolous at all after careful consideration under the law. That is a fact. I will trust the U.S. system of justice over your uninformed commentary.

  18. @achalk So what big corporations do you shill for/employ you? You sound like the Chamber of Commerce. Your quote from Wikipedia that McDonald’s offer of $800 shows the claim was meritless not only is a failure of logic, but demonstrates a profound ignorance of the way in which corporations and insurance companies act in the real world.

  19. “@achalk So what big corporations do you shill for/employ you? You sound like the Chamber of Commerce. ”
    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. You have elevated the discussion every bit as much as you always do.

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