It’s a story you’ve heard before: clumsy woman gets coffee from McDonald’s, spills it on herself, and sues for millions of dollars. The truth is a bit more complicated, and it shows how facts can become twisted over time.
In February, 1992, 79-year old Stella Liebeck and her grandson ordered coffee at McDonald’s. He parked in the lot so she could add sugar. She held the cup between her knees as she took off the lid, the coffee spilled. No biggie, right? Wrong. At temperatures between 180-190 degrees, the coffee caused burns so bad, Liebeck had to spend 8 days in the hospitals and undergo skin grafts. She lost 20% of her body weight, became scarred, and partially disabled for the next two years. When she contacted McDonald’s, she just wanted enough money to cover her hospital bills, so around $11,000. The fast-food chain countered with a measly $800, so Liebeck hired an attorney.
During the investigation, it was revealed that McDonald’s had collected over 700 claims from customers badly burned from its coffee. They also knew that coffee chains and home-brewed coffee serve their drinks at only 135-140 degrees. When pressed about why McDonald’s served such hot coffee, they said it was for taste. No one can drink coffee this hot, though, so McDonald’s said that their customers plan on drinking it once they get to work and it’s cooled down. However, McDonald’s own research found that customers actually want to drink the coffee right away while they’re driving.
When the jury awarded Liebeck millions of dollars, the judge slashed that award, reducing the total to $640,000. Both Liebeck and McDonald’s agreed to an undisclosed settlement during mediation, and it’s assumed that Liebeck ended up with less than $600,000. Liebeck’s family has not been happy with how the media has portrayed their grandmother as a gold-digger. It shows how the media, which so often resorts to limited information and sensationalism to get people’s attention. Unfortunately, that’s often the narrative that persists.