We all know the story: an elderly woman spills coffee on herself and sues her way to millions in a jury-awarded jackpot. However, the more severe burns were the ones that came from the media, which ruined the life of an elderly woman.
In 1992, Stella Liebeck made headlines and became the laughingstock of the media when she filed a lawsuit after spilling McDonald’s coffee on her lap. The public was quick to judge her, claiming that “of course coffee is hot” and unfairly accusing her of trying to squeeze money out of the fast-food chain. As it turned out, the media twisted this story, and Liebeck wasn’t a money-hungry, mean old lady. Here is the other side of the story and what most people don’t know about the infamous Liebeck v. McDonald’s Hot Coffee case.
Let’s get into the facts.
On February 27, 1992, 79-year-old widow Stella Liebeck was in the passenger’s seat of her grandson Christopher Tiano’s car when her life changed forever. “I wanted to take the top off to put cream and sugar in,” Stella said. “So, I put the cup between my knees to steady it [as I tried] to get the top off.
“And after that,” her grandson said, “she started screaming.” The spilled coffee resulted in third-degree burns on 16% of her body. She went into shock and spent over a week in the hospital undergoing various skin graft operations.
The coffee that spilled on 79-year-old Liebeck’s lap was dangerously hot and severely burned her. This wasn’t a little blister; the coffee was boiling enough to caused third-degree burns. It went through her clothes – it didn’t even touch her skin directly, yet still led to life-long injuries and a mountain of medical bills.
Stella had third-degree burns on more than 16% of her body, including her inner thighs and genitals. The skin was completely burned off, exposing the layers of muscle and fatty tissue. In addition to being hospitalized for eight days, she needed skin grafts as well as other expensive treatments. She also had two years of recovery, so this wasn’t a pleasant situation.
Since she couldn’t afford her medical bills, Stella’s grandson sent McDonald’s a letter asking for help. Stella just wanted help covering medical treatment and offered to settle the case for just $20,000, but McDonald’s refused. Instead, they offered her a mere $800, which would barely put a dent in her medical bills.
Stella didn’t know what else to do. She was desperate. She was 79 years old at the time with terrible injuries and expensive bills, causing her unnecessary stress. When she saw no other options, Stella Liebeck decided to take things into her own hands.
Since McDonald’s was absolutely no help, Stella decided to contact a lawyer. She attempted to settle out of court many times but to no avail; she sued the burger chain for $125,000 due to physical pain, mental pain, anguish, and loss of life’s enjoyment. Her legitimate argument was that the coffee was too hot.
At the time, it was a requirement for all McDonald’s chains to brew their coffee at 195 to 205 degrees and sell it at 180 to 190 degrees, much warmer than how a normal person drinks their coffee.
That meant, “the coffee in question was brewed at temperatures that would approximate the temperature in your car’s radiator after you drive from your office to home,” said Ken Wagner, another one of Stella’s lawyers.
Stella was treated so unfairly because of how the public was portraying her. Now that you got the gist of what instigated the lawsuit we’re going to debunk some myths and spill the secrets that McDonald’s employees won’t tell you.
Myth: The main reason this lawsuit gained so much attention was that it was presented as a greedy old lady trying to get money from a big corporation. If that were the case, the media response would be warranted.
Truth: Stella Liebeck spent an agonizing six months trying to convince McDonald’s to pay just $15,000 to $20,000 for medical expenses. She was a 79-year-old woman and certainly didn’t want to deal with a lawsuit. But she was left with no other option. Since the lawsuit was happening anyway, Stella was just hoping McDonald’s would change their policy, so this wouldn’t happen to anyone else.
Myth: McDonald’s was punished unfairly for serving hot coffee because everyone knows coffee is hot. If someone spills it, it’s their own problem. People didn’t understand the extent of her burns or even mention the third-degree burns at all – that came after 3 seconds of the coffee touching her skin, and that was through her clothes.
Reality: No one realized that the coffee temperature was served at a burning temperature. People also failed to comprehend how badly burned you can get from coffee that’s between 180 and 190 degrees hot. Most restaurants serve their coffees at 160 degrees, which takes twenty seconds to cause third-degree burns – giving the person time to wipe it off.
In court, the jury saw graphic images of the burns Stella suffered and heard experts testify about how hot the coffee should have been. They said that McDonald’s coffee was 30 to 40 degrees hotter than a regular coffee served anywhere else.
Stella’s surgeon, David Arrendono, MD, told the jury that if liquid that hot touches the skin for more than a few seconds, it will lead to severe burns: “If you’re lucky, it will produce second-degree burns,” he said. “If you’re not as lucky, you will get third-degree or full-thickness burns requiring skin grafting and surgery.”
The jurors were given a graphic example of what the surgeon was referring to. They were shown photos of the horrific burns on Leibeck’s groin and skin grafts. McDonald’s has justified serving boiling hot coffee in The Wall Street Journal, claiming that it tastes better.
Coffee experts even testified in court and assured McDonald’s that “hot temperatures are necessary to fully extract the flavor during brewing.” But still. Is it really worth it if it can cause terrible burns and potentially ruin someone’s life?!
Unsurprisingly, McDonald’s reps said that Stella Liebeck should hold the blame since she was holding the cup in between her legs. They also stated that she should have removed her clothes immediately after she spilled her coffee. They also claimed that her age had to do with the severity of her wounds because, with age, the skin gets thinner and more susceptible to injury.
McDonald’s defense was pretty convincing to the public, and that’s the story the media ran with. Coffee is served hot, and Stella should have known that. Although the public sided with McDonald’s and blamed Stella, the jury wasn’t having it.
The jury also heard about 700 other people, including young children, who had been burned by McDonald’s coffee before, and the company didn’t change their policy. In fact, they continue serving their coffee between 180 and 190 degrees, which is an extremely hot temperature.
Furthermore, the company knew their coffee was causing severe burns, but given the billions of coffees they sell annually, they didn’t think this number was significant. It didn’t faze the jury who now understood that McDonald’s was serving their coffee at extreme temperatures, knowingly.
Betty Farnham, who served as a juror, told The Wall Street Journal: “There was a person behind every number, and I don’t think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that.” McDonald’s’ logic is that people pick up a coffee on the way to work and want it to stay hot by the time they get there.
With the millions of dollars the corporation makes off coffee, they don’t want to mess with what works. With all the public attention surrounding the case, people were stunned by the results. But the jury made their decision based on what they saw and how McDonald’s didn’t even seem to care.
After a week of testimony and four hours of deliberation, the jurors famously sided with Stella Liebeck and granted her $200,000 in compensatory damages, but it was reduced to $160,000 because she did spill it on herself. Then, then they awarded her an incredible $2.7 million in punitive damages.
They reasoned that $2.7 million is equivalent to what McDonald’s makes on coffee sales in about two days. The total ended up $2,735,000, way more than Stella Liebeck’s lawsuit requested. “The only way you get the attention of a big company [is] to make punitive damages against them,” juror Marjorie Getman expressed. “And we thought this was a very small punitive damage.”
The amount was later lowered to $650,000 and then further reduced to about $500,000. Either way, “I think the initial award certainly got everybody’s attention, not necessarily in a favorable way,” Farnham said.
The point of the lawsuit was to try and right a wrong and ensure this won’t happen to someone else in the future. “We knew, before the lawsuit was filed, that the temperature of the water was 190 degrees or so, the franchise documents required that of the franchises,” said Kenneth Wagner, the lawyer who represented Stella.
Stella Liebeck was scalded by the media. The original Albuquerque journal about the case was 700 words long – subsequent pickup and wire-service articles were much shorter and left out important details. Unfortunately, most people learned about the case from the unfair media headlines and late-night talk shows.
If you were around after this trial, you certainly heard the mockery and may have even made fun of her yourself. “When you read ‘Woman’… ‘Coffee’… ‘Millions’… it sounds like a rip-off,” says John Llewellyn, a professor of communication at Wake Forest University. “Not the logical consequence of a thoughtful trial.”
When the case got picked up by media, the story was altered and crucial details were left out, making Stella look like all she wanted was money: a lady made $2.7 million for spilling coffee on herself. It was an easy punch line for late-night comedians, and Seinfeld made fun of it too.
Not only did news reports leave parts of the story out, but they had the facts wrong. It was reported that she was driving when the coffee spilled. In reality, Stella was in the passenger seat, and her grandson was driving. And the vehicle wasn’t moving when the coffee spilled.
Everyone was in on it. CBS News correspondent Andy Rooney said, “I’ve been thinking of quitting work here and suing big companies for a living instead. Suing has become a popular American pastime, and I’d like to get in on some of that easy money.”
Talk-show host Craig Ferguson also had things to say about the case: “Every minute they waste on this frivolous lawsuit, they’re not able to waste on other frivolous lawsuits. ‘Oooh, my coffee was too hot.’ It’s coffee!” Obviously, there was more to the story, or she would never have won the case.
Media personalities all over the country couldn’t stop blabbing about the case and laughing at how ridiculous it was. Jay Leno even got in on it, saying, “Now [Stella Liebeck] claims she broke her nose on the sneeze guard on Sizzler’s salad bar bending over looking at chickpeas.”
Needless to say, many of these media figures were just as misinformed as the rest of us. Nobody spoke about the severity of her burns or her medical bills. The people who saw the actual truth and know the details of the case – the jury – sided with the 79-year-old woman.
But talk-show hosts weren’t the only ones getting involved; politicians also felt the need to publicly state their opinion on a case they knew nothing about. “If a lady goes to a fast-food restaurant, puts coffee in her lap, burns her legs, and sues, and gets a big settlement, that in and of itself is enough to tell you why we need tort reform,” according to former U.S. Representative John Kasich of Ohio.
As you can imagine, Stella was devastated. Not only did she have to deal with this entire ordeal, but she became a huge joke. I mean, even people who weren’t alive in the ‘90s know about this case because of how “ridiculous” the media made it seem.
After purchasing the coffee in the drive-through window, they parked the car so that they could add cream and sugar. While parked, Stella put the coffee in between her legs and removed the lid when she spilled it. She was wearing sweatpants that stuck the boiling coffee against her skin.
Consumer advocates believe that the distorted narrative ran so well because business interests and lawmakers used it as a way to create a public belief that outrageous lawsuits were common and jury verdicts were amiss in an attempt to advance a tort reform agenda that limits the consumers’ rights to hold companies accountable for their wrongdoings.
Public opinion was swayed, but for the most part, people sided with McDonald’s (unless they knew the full story). For the documentary Hot Coffee, they conducted interviews with random people on the street to see their opinions. One woman said of Stella, “People are greedy and want money. They’ll do anything to get it.”
Someone else chimed in, saying, “The woman purchased the coffee and spilled it on herself. It wasn’t like the McDonald’s employee took the coffee and threw it on her.” People really couldn’t give this poor woman a break.
As you can imagine, Stella’s family was appalled. “I am just astounded at how many people are aware of this case and how many people have a distorted view of the case,” her daughter Judy Allen said. “I’ll say, What if I told you she wasn’t driving?’ and they’ll say, ‘Oh, no, she was driving.’”
“I’ve heard people say she was asking for $30 million or something equally ridiculous,” Stella’s daughter-in-law Barbara said. “Basically, Stella told McDonald’s, ‘I want you to cover what Medicare doesn’t cover, and I want you to get a better lid on that coffee because I don’t want this to happen to another person.’ That’s what she was asking for.”
Unfortunately, once people have a view on something, it’s tough to change their minds, especially with such a well-known case that has a relatively unified public opinion. “Once everybody decides what is true about something and the media has been sort of an echo chamber for it, then how do you deal with the fact that they might be wrong?” Llewellyn asked.
She added, “That Stella Liebeck needed to defend her reputation is the saddest piece of this whole story to me.” Can you imagine being in her shoes? The media mocking might have been more hurtful than her burns.
“I wasn’t in it for the money,” Liebeck said in response to the backlash. “I was in it because I want them to bring the temperature down so that other people wouldn’t go through the same thing I did.” Unfortunately, Stella Liebeck never made a full recovery to the strength and energy she had before the coffee incident.
In 2004, she passed away at age 91, and now McDonald’s apparently serves their coffee at a 10-degree lower temperature. Ever since the lawsuit made headlines, people attempted to make hot coffee claims against a bunch of companies other than McDonald’s.
In addition to McDonald’s, people tried using the hot coffee justification to sue Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, Continental Airlines, and other successful companies. In many of these cases, it was just to try and squeeze money out of these rich corporations.
I mean, unless they are suffering from terrible burns, have medical bills to pay, and a lower quality of life, there shouldn’t be a case. Stella Liebeck won this infamous lawsuit because she had to endure horrible pain and suffering because McDonald’s is purposely brewing boiling hot coffee.
Trial lawyer Susan Saladoff made a documentary in 2011 entitled Hot Coffee, in which she exposes what really happened and corrected much of the public perception surrounding the case. But even after that, the narrative of “the woman who got rich after abusing the court system over spilled coffee” persisted.
Stella’s lawyer Kenneth Wagner said their goal was to make sure this never happens to anyone else. The United States’ products liability laws involve clear instructions about warnings: They need to be in visible places and warn the user of the dangerous features. “All the cup said was ‘contents hot,’” and that wasn’t enough, according to Wagner, who believes the warning should clarify that it can cause severe burns.
The McDonald’s hot coffee case wouldn’t have been a thing in Maryland. Stella Liebeck wouldn’t have been given a cent to compensate for the horrific and disfiguring burns she suffered as a result. Maryland is one of the last remaining states which refused to accept the concept of comparative negligence.
Instead, Maryland holds the unjust concept of contributory negligence, which basically means that even if you hold 1% of responsibility in contributing to an accident, you will receive nothing for your injuries, no matter how severe they are.
Most states go by the concept of comparative negligence, which means that even if you are at 1% fault, you will still be compensated, but your total earnings would be reduced by 1% in value. That doesn’t sound like a bad deal to me.
In the McDonald’s hot coffee case, McDonald’s should definitely take responsibility for knowingly serving dangerously hot coffee. That said, Stella did spill it on herself, so she was partially to blame for her injuries because she was the one who removed the coffee lid.
Since she was considered to be moderately at fault, her award was reduced by the percentage that the jury found her to blame. In Stella’s defense, it wouldn’t matter if the coffee spilled as long as it was a normal temperature. I don’t think that she holds any blame, but the law says otherwise. Thankfully, she wasn’t in Maryland, though.
She would have been completely barred from receiving anything for her burns. Maryland also has a cap for non-economic damages, like pain and suffering. The legislature in the state tells us that no matter how much suffering your injuries cause, the value of your life cannot be more than $800,000. It sounds like a lot, but I would hope my life is worth more than that. Note to self: Don’t move to Maryland.