by Steven J. Owens (unless otherwise attributed)
I did some homework on this story a couple years ago. I don't remember all of the details, but I'll say what I know.
I'll start by clarifying some of the money issues.
The customer was burned (see below) and requested that McDonald's pay the medical costs, a little over $10K if I recall correctly.
She then sued McDonald's for said costs, plus court costs. She won.
The JURY decided to award punitive damages as well, largely because of McDonald's handling of the situation and the fact that they had several previous court decisions against them, for which they did not change their practices. I think the original award was on the order of $80,000, and subsequently was raised to over the million-dollar-mark.
As to why she won; McDonald's brewed (and still does, I believe, in spite of several lawsuits both before and after this legendary incident) and kept their coffee at an unreasonably high - dangerously high - temperature. In a nutshell, McDonald's requires their franchisees to brew coffee at 195 to 205 degrees, and maintain it at 180 to 190 degrees. This is about 40 degrees hotter than normal coffee temperature, and it's hot enough to cause serious physical harm.
One of the main arguments in the case was that the coffee, at the temperature served, was unfit for human consumption.
McDonald's knew about the temperature issue for years. 700 incidents of scalding cases had been settled in the past, for claims ranging up to 3rd degree burns.
The woman who sued McDonald's was seriously burned; I've seen reports that they were third degree burns, but I'm skeptical of those; the more reliable sources I found when I looked into it indicated 2nd degree burns which are quite serious enough. Just to clarify what that means in human terms:
"A second degree burn develops wet blisters (remember the body fluid we talked about?). If these blisters pop, wet body fluid leaks out. After that happens, it is very important to put some fluid back into the body. This can be done by drinking a lot of juices (if your tummy is not sick). Sometimes this fluid is put into your body using an I.V. (a plastic tube that goes under the skin and into your blood vessel; a special watery substance drips inside). Some second-degree burns heal. It takes about two weeks. Other second-degree burns are deeper into the skin and will not heal well without an operation and skin grafting."
The woman spent seven days in the hospital being treated, among other things with skin grafts.
Also note that the burns in question were on her groin area; you may argue that it's not smart to put a cup of hot coffee between your legs, but at sane temperatures you wouldn't be risking more than discomfort and a little embarrassment by such an action, not SECOND DEGREE BURNS.
The amount the jury awarded, 2.7 million dollars, was approximately two days worth of coffee sales for McDonalds (they gross about 1.3 million dollars a day from coffee).
The amount the judge actually awarded was $480,000.
Apparently McDonald's hasn't learned its lesson; somebody else sued them for first and second degree scalding burns, in 1997.