The woman who sued McDonald’s for serving her coffee that was too hot in the drive-thru is perhaps the most famous personal injury case in the country. However, many don’t know the true story.
While the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Lawsuit is the poster child for frivolous lawsuits and how “you can sue for anything nowadays,” this was actually all part of the public relations plan to drag Stella Liebeck’s reputation through the mud and to save theirs.
The real story is not as widely known.
In 1994, Liebeck hired a personal injury attorney after she sustained third-degree burns to her leg and crotch region after a scalding hot cup of coffee was spilled onto her legs. This accident happened after Lieback and her grandson went to the McDonald’s drive-thru. Her grandson parked the car so Lieback could pour creamer and sugar into her coffee.
What was a normal day changed the 79-year-old’s life after the coffee spilled onto her lap. Lieback was rushed to the hospital where she remained for eight days while undergoing skin grafting procedures. During this period, Liebeck lost almost 20% of her body weight, and she needed around-the-clock care for three weeks. She also suffered permanent disfigurement and was partially disabled for two years.
While there was a warning on the coffee cup that the beverage was hot, Liebeck’s lawyer for burn injuries argued that the average consumer would have no idea the liquid was a whopping 180 degrees, which is enough to require skin grafting after touching the skin for just three seconds.
While Lieback was partially at fault for not heeding the cup’s warning enough, damning evidence came out that in the form of documents that showed that from 1982 to 1992, over 700 complaints had been made to McDonald’s regarding burns from their coffee.
McDonald’s refused to settle, instead taking the case to trial. Jurors ended up ruling to they give the burn victim $2.7 million in punitive damages, which is equivalent to two days’ worth of coffee sales from the franchise. The judge reduced this amount to $480,000.
In total, Lieback was awarded $640,000, but her life was changed forever. People who didn’t know the crucial details of the lawsuit thought she was greedy, and she ended up moving homes due to the harassment she was receiving.
The McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit is taught all over the country as a reason why personal injury lawyers need to exist – Companies must be held accountable when they fail to take measures to protect customers.