You may have heard the story of Stella Liebeck, who in 1992, spilled hot coffee on her lap and took legal action against McDonald’s. As the story goes, she was driving her vehicle when the coffee spilled. She then sued McDonald’s over the spilled coffee, winning her case and forcing the global fast food chain to pay for the enormous amount of damages.
It became known as the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit—a story of America’s court system gone wild, an illustration of the excesses of a litigious culture where no one takes responsibility for their own actions. Over time, it became a punchline, a way for people at parties to bemoan how America’s legal system have declined to the point that you can “sue over a spilled cup of coffee.”
At least, that’s the story most of America has heard.
According to the lawsuit, the coffee served to the 79-year-old Liebeck was as hot as 180 to 190 degrees—for reference, the optimal drinking temperature for hot beverages is around 140-150 degrees. The excessive heat was part of a McDonald’s promotion where they promised commuters that their coffee would still be hot by the time it got to their desks.
Liebeck was with her grandson (who was driving) when she received the coffee from the drive-thru window. She was sitting in the passenger seat of the vehicle, but her grandson had pulled over so she could add sugar and creamer. She pulled on the lid to remove it, but the entire cup of coffee spilled onto her lap. The clothing she was wearing absorbed the coffee, holding it against her skin and covering her genital area and thighs in severe burns.
The elderly woman was hospitalized with full-thickness burns covering six percent of her body. She was hospitalized for eight days and required skin graft surgery to treat the damage.
Liebeck was only looking to recoup the expenses of her out-of-pocket medical care, but McDonald’s refused to help. Liebeck continued to plead with McDonald’s for months, asking them to pay for a portion of the extensive surgeries and treatment she required as a result of her third-degree burns. At one point, Liebeck indicated that she was willing to settle for $20,000. McDonald’s decided to fight the claim rather than settle, delaying her relief for months.
Because of the company’s multiple refusals to settle, Liebeck was forced to sue them for what she needed to survive. The case was brought before a jury, who awarded Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages and medical expenses, as well as $2.7 million in punitive damages.
The judgement was ultimately reduced to $640,000.
Why Corporations Refuse to Tell the Truth
The trial gained national attention and put Liebeck in the middle of what many deemed a frivolous lawsuit. To this day, many people believe that Liebeck scammed McDonald’s. On the contrary, Liebeck had a justified lawsuit—her claim was only the latest in a string of 700 lawsuits related to the temperature of McDonald’s coffee. In response, McDonald’s ran a smear campaign in order to devalue the woman’s injuries and subsequent lawsuit.
McDonald’s goal? Hide the problem and avoid the public backlash.
Unfortunately, they largely succeeded. Liebeck received more than she initially sought, but she was also labeled as a scammer looking to make money off of something that was “her fault.” More importantly, the facts of her case were obscured by the sentiment it inspired—countless critics of the American legal system who modified her story to use as a bludgeon against plaintiff’s rights.
People have every reason to be upset about the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit. They’re just not upset at the right party.
While Liebeck didn’t receive the amount initially awarded, she was still able to be compensated by the jury for the injuries she sustained and she changed the way McDonald’s served their coffee. McDonald’s even admitted the temperature at which they were serving their coffee wasn’t fit for consumption and lowered the serving temperature.
In the end, Liebeck was able to accomplish what jury trials are supposed to do: she brought to light an issue that caused harm to others—in the process, creating change.
On the other hand, McDonald’s ran a smear campaign that also worked. They were successful in convincing the public that jury trials are full of frivolous cases and scam artists. We know the truth of the matter—and the public should too: very few lawsuits could ever be considered “frivolous.” Injury victims have real pain that demands real justice—and it does them no good to assume otherwise.