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

That’s when Liebeck contacted a lawyer. After attempts to settle out of court failed, Liebeck sued McDonald’s for $125,000, claiming physical and mental pain, anguish, and loss of life’s enjoyment. Her argument: The coffee was too hot.

At the time, McDonald’s required its franchises to brew its coffee at 195 to 205 degrees and sell it at 180 to 190 degrees, far warmer than the coffee made by most home coffee-brewing machines. That meant that “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 one of Liebeck’s lawyers, Ken Wagner.

During the trial, Liebeck’s surgeon, David Arredondo, MD, told the jury that if liquid at that temperature makes contact with skin for more than a few seconds, it will cause very serious 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.” Jurors were given a graphic example of what he was talking about when they were shown photos of Liebeck’s burned groin and skin grafts.

McDonald’s had a reason for requiring its coffee to be served at that temperature, reported the Wall Street Journal—it tasted better. Coffee experts assured the company that “hot temperatures are necessary to fully extract the flavor during brewing.”

McDonald’s reps suggested that the blame lay with Liebeck for holding the cup between her legs. And once she spilled her coffee, they said, she should have removed her clothes immediately. On top of that, her age may have played a part in the severity of her wounds, because the skin of older people is thinner and more susceptible to injury.

However, the trial revealed that Liebeck was not alone. McDonald’s had received more than 700 complaints about burns from hot beverages over the previous ten-year period.

The defense countered that the number of complaints was statistically insignificant, given the billions of cups of McDonald’s coffee sold annually. Their point seemed to turn off jurors.

“There was a person behind every number, and I don’t think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that,” juror Betty Farnham told the Wall Street Journal.

After seven days of testimony and four hours of deliberation, the jurors sided with Liebeck. They awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages. But because she caused the spill, they reduced the amount to $160,000. The jurors then awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages, which, they reasoned, was equivalent to about two days’ worth of McDonald’s coffee sales. The total was $2,735,000 more than Liebeck’s lawsuit had requested.

“The only way you can get the attention of a big company [is] to make punitive damages against them,” said juror Marjorie Getman. “And we thought this was a very small punitive damage.”

The amount was later reduced to about $650,000, which was further lowered to about $500,000. Nevertheless, “I think the initial award certainly got everybody’s attention, not necessarily in a favorable way,” said Farnham.

As Scalded by the Media showed, although the original Albuquerque Journal article about the trial ran at 700 words, subsequent pickup and wire-service articles were far shorter and left out important details. In the end, all that most people knew about the case came from the headlines and late-night talk shows.

“When you read, ‘Woman’ … ‘Coffee’ … ‘Millions’ … it sounds like a rip-off,” John Llewellyn, a professor of communication at Wake Forest University, said. “Not the logical consequence of a thoughtful trial.”

And Liebeck became the chum feeding the ensuing media frenzy:

“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.”—CBS News correspondent Andy Rooney

“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!!” —Talk show host Craig Ferguson

“Now [Liebeck] claims she broke her nose on the sneeze guard on Sizzler’s salad bar bending over looking at the chickpeas.” —Jay Leno

Politicians jumped on the bandwagon:
“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.” —former U.S. Representative John Kasich of Ohio

Public opinion was swayed. During man-in-the-street interviews for the documentary Hot Coffee, one woman said of Liebeck, “People are greedy and want money. They’ll do anything to get it.”

A man said, “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.”

Her family, understandably, 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,” said daughter Judy Allen. “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,” said Liebeck’s daughter-in-law, Barbara. “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 was what she was asking for.”

That message was lost in all the chatter. “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?” said Llewellyn. “That Stella Liebeck needed to defend her reputation is the saddest piece of this whole story to me.”

“I was not in it for the money,” Liebeck said at the time. “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.”

Stella Liebeck never regained the strength and energy she had before she was burned. She passed away in 2004, at the age of 91. McDonald’s now serves its coffee at a temperature that is 10 degrees lower.

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