Hot Beverages at Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) Drive-Thru Windows

By Borchgrevink, Carl P.; Sciarini, Michael P. et al. | Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Hot Beverages at Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) Drive-Thru Windows


Borchgrevink, Carl P., Sciarini, Michael P., Susskind, Alex M., Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management


The Liebeck hot coffee case is discussed, showing that the court's decision was not whimsical, but predicated on the knowledge and behaviour of McDonald's as represented and displayed by their employees and agents. Subsequent research establishing consumer preferred temperatures for consuming hot beverages is reviewed, as is the literature considering that such temperatures are above medical literature thresholds for injuries, yet not causing injuries. Past and current quick service restaurant (QSR) drive-thru window practices regarding hot beverage service temperatures and warnings are established and examined. Finally, circumstances and conditions under which O.SR management need to practice due diligence in providing for their customers are addressed.

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In 1994 a jury decision to award Ms Stella Liebeck nearly $3 million from McDonald's created quite an uproar within the hospitality industry and among the general public. While the judge presiding over the case later reduced the verdict and a final settlement was reached outside of the courts, the case still has significant implications for hospitality business operators and the public at large.

Many have heard of the 1994 case in which Ms Stella Liebeck was awarded $2.9 million in a combination of compensatory and punitive damages for burning herself with coffee received at a McDonald's drive-thru window. Some of the outrage centred on the notion that coffee is supposed to be hot, and that Ms Liebeck should have taken greater care not to spill her coffee. Many believe that she had the cup between her legs and was driving at the time of the spill. Some believe that the case was totally frivolous, and that it represented an out-of-control litigious society. A mock prize, The Stella Award ('StellaAwards.com', 2006), has even been named after Stella Liebeck's case. This award is given each year to the case that is deemed the most frivolous. Others believe the case was helpful and instrumental in encouraging safer hospitality practices, as well as safer hot beverage cups and lids. The discussion and controversy continues to this date (see, e.g., Fleischer-Black, 2004; Greenbaum, 2005; Lane, 2006; Off the Kuff, 2002; Olson & Frank, 2006; 'The Real Facts', 2006).

The Facts of the Liebeck Case

The most pertinent facts of this case as reported by the Wall Street Journal (Gerlin, 1994) and the New York Times (Shaw, 1994) follow. The law firm hired to defend McDonald's in the Stella Liebeck case sent a law student to measure coffee temperatures at other establishments and found that none of the cups of coffee at other restaurants were as hot as the coffee served by McDonald's. The closest cup was approximately 20[degrees]F (11[degrees]C) below the temperature at which McDonald's apparently was serving coffee. The temperature McDonald's is cited as using is about 180[degrees]F (82[degrees]C).

Prior to trial the opposing lawyers received the McDonald's operating manual. It stipulated that coffee should be brewed at a temperature ranging from 195[degrees]F (90.6[degrees]C) to 205[degrees]F (96.1[degrees]C), and held at the range of 180[degrees]F (82.2[degrees]C) to 190[degrees]F (87.8[degrees]C) for optimal taste.

Ms Liebeck was a passenger in a car, and the car was parked at the time of the spill. She had ordered a cup of coffee at the drive-thru and it had been served with sugar and cream on the side. When Ms Liebeck attempted to remove the lid in order to add the cream and sugar, she held the cup between her legs for stability, but wound up spilling coffee on her groin, inner thighs and buttocks. Her burns were severe and she spent 7 days in the hospital during which she received skin grafts among other treatments. In her suit, Ms Liebeck claimed that the coffee was a defective product due to the high serving temperature of the coffee. It should be noted, however, that Ms Liebeck had initially not intended to sue McDonald's, but simply requested compensation for her pain and coverage of her medical bills.

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