COFFEE BURNS by Karen Paterson

Each year thousands of people are burned by hot coffee, tea and water. Hot tap water is the most frequent cause of scalding burns. The most frequent victims are persons over 65 or under 5. While we all know that hot liquids burn, many people do not realize that everyday hot liquids can inflict serious third degree burns.

The most famous case of coffee burns is the New Mexico lawsuit of Liebeck v McDonalds, where an elderly woman bought a cup of hot coffee in a drive-thru, put the coffee between her legs, parked the car and took the top off of the cup, whereupon the contents spilled. The coffee was served from an airport at 180ºF, but was probably about 170ºF in the cup. The coffee melted her polyester pants and caused severe third degree burns to her legs. She claimed that the coffee was too hot and that McDonalds should have warned her. The jury verdict she received of $2.7 million dollars was reduced by the trial judge and later reduced by a confidential settlement.

In spite of the Liebeck case, most hot coffee burn lawsuits are routinely dismissed by the court. As the judge said in a British case, ” I find that the pubic want to be able to buy tea and coffee served hot, that is to say at a temperature of , even though they know that there is a risk of scalding injury, if the drink is spilled.”

The recommended temperature for brewing coffee is between 195ºand 205º Fahrenheit. Coffee brewed below this temperature is thin and sour. Coffee brewed above this temperature is bitter and acidic.

Hot coffee is normally held in serving pots at 180ºF. The recommended initial temperature in the cup is 170ºF and, as we all know, is too hot to drink. Coffee is either cooled by adding cream or by waiting for a few minutes before drinking.

One reason for serving coffee too hot to drink is that at 150º to 160ºF the oils in coffee give off aromas that contribute to the taste of coffee.

However, hot coffee can cause a third degree burn; in 1 second at 156ºF , in 2 seconds at 149ºF, in 5 seconds at 140ºF, and in 15 seconds at 133ºF.


  • Keep children away from hot liquids, including hot water taps.
  • Don’t put hot liquids on table cloths or placements.
  • Keep control of hot liquid containers (e.g. don’t carry four coffee cups at the same time)
  • When moving hot liquids, keep your eyes on the container at all times, don’t look ahead or around when moving hot liquids.
  • Avoid sloshing by moving slowly when carrying open containers of hot liquids. Quick stepping leads to disaster.
  • Don’t rest hot liquid containers on your body, between your legs or where they can tip over and spill onto yourself or someone else

First aid for scalding burns:

1. Remove saturated clothing immediately or drench in cool water

2. Hold burned area under cool water for at least 20 minutes.

3. Air dry – no ointment or ice.

4. Assess burned area, if large or on face, hands, feet or genitals seek medical attention. If small,

  • First degree burn – looks like sunburn, can be home treated. Use 100% aloe.
  • Second degree burn – redness, blistering, weeping, seek medical attention
  • Third degree burn – no blistering, skin black, grey or leathery, may not be painful. Seek immediate hospital treatment.

5. Take Ibuprofen for pain relief

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Hula Daddy Kona Coffee is the winner of the 2014 Kona Coffee Cupping Competition. Karen is a member of the Hawaii Coffee Association, the Kona Coffee Council, the Kona Coffee Farmers Association, and the Specialty Coffee Association of America. She is also the author of a number of articles on Kona Coffee including: Coffee Fraud Kona Coffee Farmers at a Crossroad ;How Typica is Your Kona Coffee? ; Are Roasters Eroding the Kona Coffee Brand?; Coffee Cupping Competitions – Real or Random Chance? ; Seven Easy Steps to Become a Gourmet Coffee Taster ; How to Brew Coffee Using a Pour Over Filter; Before You Buy an Automatic Single Serve Coffee Brewer; Siphon Coffee Brewers Suck!; Sweet Coffee;What Color is Your Coffee Roast? You can email her at

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