The truth now about the big stories then

Taking the Lid Off the McDonald’s Coffee Case

In 1992, Stella Liebeck spilled scalding McDonald’s coffee in her lap and later sued the company, attracting a flood of negative attention. It turns out, there’s more to the story.

More than 20 years ago, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck ordered coffee at a McDonald’s drive-through in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She spilled the coffee, was burned, and a year later, sued McDonald’s. The jury awarded her $2.9 million dollars.

Jurors heard testimony for a week and deliberated for hours. They learned that she was burned over 16% of her body, and had third degree burns on her groin. They also learned that McDonald’s had received nearly 700 complaints about hot coffee burns in the almost 10 years before Stella’s trial.

But those details went mostly unreported, and the public made a quicker judgment. Stella became a symbol for frivolous lawsuits and fodder for talk show hosts, late night comedians, sitcom writers, and even political pundits. The headlines, referring to an elderly grandmother spilling coffee from McDonald’s and winning millions of dollars, practically wrote themselves. But cleverness came at the expense of context, and despite some more detailed reports that offered greater context and a new perspective, such as the documentary Hot Coffee, most people still don’t know the extent of Liebeck’s injuries.

Wake Forest University Professor John Llewellyn calls Liebeck’s lawsuit the most misunderstood story in America.


Related Stories:

New York Times: Not Just a Hot Cup Anymore

Roll Call: Behind the McDonald’s Coffee Case

Daily Beast: Supersize Me, Your Honor

The Takeaway: The True Story Behind the McDonald’s Coffee Lawsuit

Political Wire: The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case

Business Insider: How A $2.9 Million Jury Verdict Over Spilled Coffee Became America’s Most Misunderstood Story

Refinery29: Despite Advancements, Coffee Is Still Dangerously Hot

Daily Mail: The truth behind the “hot coffee” lawsuit

Gawker: The truth behind the “most widely misunderstood story in America”

Extra TV: Remember the woman who sued McDonalds over coffee that was too hot?

Eater: Watch the story behind the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit

Conversations with Thinkers: Retro Report’s Bonnie Bertram: “Liebeck v. McDonald’s: The Big Burn”


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