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Ethics in Practice Cases

McDonald’s: The Coffee heard around the world.

Stella Liebeck ordered hot coffee in a McDonald outlet. In the events that followed, there was a coffee spill that resulted in third degree burns as Liebeck attempted to get the lid off her coffee cup. She had held the coffee cup between her thighs which resulted in the coffee burning her thighs at temperatures above 170 degrees. This resulted in third degree burns in 6% of her body. Liebeck suffered injuries and losses in medical expenses notwithstanding loss of revenue due to lost time. McDonald’s offered her a partly $800 while Stella and her family had incurred in excess of $2000 in pocket expenses (Buchholtz, 2012). This resulted in a lawsuit that resulted in McDonalds paying $640,000 in damages to Liebeck.

Major overriding issues.

Despite the fact that Stella was not planning to sue McDonalds, she sued McDonalds through a reknown lawyer, Reed Morgan. This was aggravated by the actions of McDonalds which comprised gross negligence as they sold hot coffee using defectively manufactured cups.  In the lawsuit, the attorney claimed for no less than $100,000 in damages for compensation due to the third degree burns attained by his client. McDonalds dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that Liebeck was responsible for the spill (Buchholtz, 2012).

Related issues that merit consideration.

A quality assurance officer at McDonalds testified that the fast food chain had refused to lower coffee temperatures despite complaints from over 700 customers ten years earlier (Buchholtz, 2012). When the company’s argued that the number was small in comparison to the 24 million cups sold, it was concluded that the company cared more about statistics than it cared for its customers. Further, a company executive had testified that the company was not intending to change any of its coffee policies. On the contrary, a defence lawyer had admitted that the coffee was hot, the same way customers wanted it. The attorney further pressed that Liebeck had been unwise to put the cup between her thighs (Buchholtz, 2012).

Analysis and evaluation

Stakeholder analysis

Various defense witnesses helped Liebeck in the construction of the case. The quality assurance supervisor argued that McDonalds had neglected customer complaints over a long time as regards the temperature of its coffee. McDonald’s safety consultant claimed that the number of complaints was small compared to the overall production (Buchholtz, 2012). This can be interpreted to mean that the fast food company cared more about figures, as opposed to safety concerns for each of their customers. On the contrary, Liebeck had through her defense lawyer claimed for more than $300,000 in compensatory damages. McDonalds considered this amount to be excessive. This was so despite the fact that Liebeck was partly responsible for her predicament. As such, questions arise over what responsibilities customers have for their wellbeing.

CSR Analysis

Questions arise regarding McDonald’s corporate social responsibility following Liebeck’s accident. The company’s CSR policy on safety concerns of its customers is faulty as evidenced by the tenuous process undergone by its customer in courtroom battles. Public opinion polls were clearly against McDonalds as customers complained about the company’s disregard for customers’ safety concerns. In addition to the company denying responsibility for the accident, its CSR can be faulted in the public display of utter disregard for the welfare of its customers. McDonald’s ethical responsibility is ignored in this case as the consumers’ interests are not prioritized. Legal considerations are also utterly disregarded as evidenced by the court battles instigated by the company.


In handling the lawsuit, the company did not handle the case correctly particularly when it denied responsibility for the accident. The company’s management should have agreed on an out of court settlement. This would have saved the company’s image, in addition to retaining public trust. In contrast, more complaints were raised by disgruntled questions.

Recommendations and implementation.


The coffee spill was renowned the world over as the issue formed the basis for reform discussions regarding the company’s disregard for its customers’ welfare. The company’s management should have realized that they owed its customers protection through taking measures aimed at protecting them against unforeseen circumstances. Instead, the management should have looked into the matter over time and implemented major reforms in packaging of its beverages using optimum temperatures. In an effort to save its image to avert the probability of losing customers, the company should have immediately issued a personal apology to Liebeck before compensating.

Alternatives and implementation considerations.

The immediate response of the company would have been admitting responsibility. This would have retained public trust, in addition to proving genuine concern for its customers’ welfare. The short term alternative to rejecting suits filed against McDonalds would have been accepting liability and settling for an out of court agreement. This would have ensured the company’s public image remained intact. In the long run, the company should have considered reducing the coffee temperatures in its cups to reduce future accidents. For customers that prefer their coffee hot, the company can increase the size of the printed warning on cups warning customers of the high temperature at which the beverage is served. Additionally, McDonald’s CSR policy should be revised to accommodate such unforeseen circumstances.

Implementation considerations.

In the implementation of reforms touching on customer safety, McDonalds should involve all stakeholders including customers to determine how their well-being can be enhanced. Firstly, where the company is made aware of its customers getting injured as a result of handling its products, it should undertake to undertake to cover for medical bills. Further, the company’s public relations team should try to uphold the company’s image through positive publicity among other means. Eventually, the company should hold discussions on how best to handle its corporate social responsibilities keeping all stakeholders’ interests in mind.

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