Remember the Hot Coffee Lawsuit? What Really Happened

An elderly woman is burned when she spills a cup of hot coffee on her lap. She sues her way to a $2.7 million jury-awarded jackpot. The next burn comes from the media, and her life is changed forever.

Adapted by Andy Simmons from Hot Coffee a documentary film by Susan Saladoff
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine March 2014

stella liebeckJoe Marquette/AP Photo

On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old widow, was in the passenger seat of her grandson’s Ford Probe ordering a Value Meal at the drive through window of an Albuquerque, New Mexico, McDonald’s. Since there were no cup holders in the Probe and the interior surfaces were sloped, her grandson, Christopher Tiano, pulled into a parking spot after they got their order.

“I wanted to take the top off the coffee to put cream and sugar in,” Liebeck told a local news station at the time. “So I put the cup between my knees to steady it [as I tried] to get the top off.”

“And after that,” says Tiano, “she started screaming.”

The coffee spilled on Liebeck’s lap, resulting in second- and third-degree burns over 16 percent of her body. She went into shock and was hospitalized for a week, undergoing numerous skin graft operations.

“I’m a nurse, and I was horrified by the type of injuries that she had sustained,” said Liebeck’s daughter-in-law, Barbara Liebeck.

When Liebeck’s medical bills topped $10,000, she contacted McDonald’s and asked to be reimbursed.

“We couldn’t believe that this much damage could happen over spilled coffee,” Liebeck’s daughter, Judy Allen, said in Scalded by the Media, a 2013 documentary about the case. “We wrote a letter to McDonald’s asking them to check the temperature of the coffee and to give recompense for the medical bills.”

“We said, ‘Your machine must be too hot, so look at it, and fix it if it’s broken,’ ” said Liebeck’s son-in-law, Charles Allen. “It must be an aberration. But if that’s your policy, we ask you to worry about your policy.”

McDonald’s responded with an offer of $800.

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