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Ethical Issues in Liebeck vs. McDonald’s Case


Different people and institutions perceive ethics differently depending on the circumstances. Legally, ethics could be a set of rules and regulations that society must follow, while societal norms can be what people perceive as right or wrong according to particular communities. Some legal cases may seem frivolous until discussions regarding the ethical issues are made to ascertain the significance of the lawsuits.

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Among such cases is the Ms. Liebeck vs. McDonald’s Restaurants case, where the plaintiff sues the defendant for making scalding hot coffee. The case has been a source of criticism for seeming silly and wasting hurry and people’s time. However, future analysis of the ethical issues considered during the trial may change many people’s minds about the case. This essay discusses the ethical issues regarding negligence and product liability that make the case a serious legal claim.

Product Liability

Product liability is one of the ethical issues Ms. Liebeck considered while suing McDonald’s restaurant. It refers to the direct cause of injuries, loss, harm, or risk a plaintiff incurs. According to the case statement, the defendant suffered third-degree burns, meaning the coffee was too hot to cause severe skin damage. When a person suffers from a company’s product, the company has a moral duty to own up to its mistake and offer compensation.

Stein (2017) states that Ms. Liebeck’s case is no different from company negligence in providing safety precautions to consumers, hence guilty for the coffee burns. Oh and Kim (2017) argue that a producer has more knowledge of a product than the consumer and is responsible for creating awareness of the product’s contents to the public. McDonald’s restaurant was aware that their coffee had high temperatures that could cause serious harm in case of spills either on the employees or clients; hence the restaurant is liable for their product causing damage.

A similar lawsuit case presents in the case of Pearson vs. Custom Cleaners. The defendant, Custom Cleaners, misplaces the plaintiff’s (Mr. Pearson) pants causing him inconvenience since he only had two pairs of pants. The case may seem frivolous, but the plaintiff argues that its marketing slogan guarantees same-day cleaning and delivery, which it failed to achieve. Thus, the plaintiff demanded compensation for the missing pants, although the company claimed to have found them three days later.

In this case, the cleaning company had a moral responsibility to notify the defendant of any delays, but they did not. Compensation can only be made if the harm caused is severe and the compensation amount does not exceed the company’s value (Stein, 2017). Although the company’s services were responsible for misplacing the plaintiff’s pants, causing service liability, the jury dismissed his compensation claim. The jury argued that Mr. Pearson demanded more than the harm caused since it was only misplacing a pair of pants.

Company Negligence

Running a restaurant requires professional services and observing safety measures for both employees and consumers. In defining ethics, there is a difference between the federal view of ethics and societal opinions. Thus, companies and institutions must be aware of legal and societal expectations of their services and product. Legally, safety measures include food safety, public health regulations, and product standardization measures.

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Societal norms require restaurants and food outlets to consider consumer preferences such as food quality, the temperature of beverages, and the type of foods and drinks served in particular outlets considering the age and gender of the majority of consumers. Considering that McDonald’s is a popular restaurant for adults and the old, making coffee at high temperatures can be seen as unethical and socially inconsiderate (Anaf et al., 2018). Adults and older people are usually busy and have a lot on their hands to mind temperatures. Therefore, McDonald’s restaurant should have considered this factor when arguing their defense and correcting the mistake.

Legally, the restaurant violated the moral responsibility of public safety by serving hot coffee without warning consumers. Food and beverage outlets have a duty to inform consumers about the specific makeup of particular drinks and foods (Oh & Kim, 2017). For instance, if a restaurant changes the recipe for a given food or beverage, they must inform consumers of the changes to avoid allergic reactions or product misinformation. Likewise, the outlets should ensure that consumers are aware of a drink’s temperatures and contents.

If Ms. Liebeck had known of the temperatures, she could have avoided placing the coffee on her lap. The restaurant had the moral responsibility of labeling the coffee’s temperatures to avoid unnecessary accidents on the defendant’s side (Stein, 2017). In their defense, the restaurant claims that customers like their coffee hot and do not have a problem with the high temperatures; hence they did not violate the moral responsibility of considering customer preferences. However, evidence from the case indicates that the restaurant had received other complaints regarding the extreme temperatures of their coffee (Anaf et al., 2018). Although none of the issues had severe implications or bodily harm, the report shows that other customers had complained, and the restaurant was aware of the situation but did nothing to reduce the coffee’s temperature.

Apart from labeling the temperature of the beverages, Ms. Liebeck’s case argument included improper packaging of the coffee. According to the plaintiff, McDonald’s coffee cups are made from poor-quality material, and the lids are not suitable for preventing spillages. In the restaurant’s defense, the defendant claims that the plaintiff did not open the cup’s lid properly or know the manufacturer’s intention when making the cup.

Using sub-standard material in manufacturing food and beverage containers is scientifically and technologically unethical in the food industry (Deshwal et al., 2019). If the cup had instructions on opening or using without opening the lid, the accident could have been avoided. Therefore, McDonald’s is guilty of neglecting the moral responsibility of not labeling its products appropriately and using sub-standard cups.

Consumer Negligence

Consumers also have a moral responsibility to ensure their safety and public safety. In this case, safety measures include caution on spillages and holding hot liquids away from the body, particularly in sensitive areas. According to the trial report, Ms. Liebeck’s car did not have cup holders, thus placing the coffee on her lap. Placing a beverage on the lap is a very careless act regardless of the drink’s temperature (Deshwal et al., 2019). It is also immoral in society’s perspective to place consumable foods or drinks on the lap as it is unhygienic and encourages spills due to body movement. This argument led to a 20% deduction of the plaintiff’s damage compensation amount due to negligence on her part.


It is essential to consider all ethical cases in a lawsuit before judging the case as frivolous. Evaluating the claim based on these ethical issues makes McDonald’s restaurant guilty of refusing the moral responsibility of compensating the plaintiff since their product is the cause of harm. The restaurant is also negligent of their customer’s safety because Ms. Liebeck’s claim is among many other complaints that were never addressed. Failing to caution customers on the coffee’s temperature by labeling the degree of hotness is also unethical. Finally, Ms. Liebeck also had a moral responsibility of being cautious with the beverage regardless of the hotness.

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Anaf, J., Baum, F., & Fisher, M. (2018). A citizens’ jury on the regulation of McDonald’s products and operations in Australia in response to a corporate health impact assessment. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 42(2), 133-139. Web.

Deshwal, G. K., Narender, R. P., & Alam, T. (2019). An overview of the paper and paper-based food packaging materials: Health safety and environmental concerns. Journal of Food Science and Technology, 56(10), 4391-4403. Web.

Oh, H., & Kim, K. (2017). Customer satisfaction, service quality, and customer value: Years 2000-2015. International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, 29(1), 2-29. Web.

Stein, A. (2017). The domain of torts. Columbia Law Review, 117(3), 535-611. Web.

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