This 11-minute video introduces students to a misunderstood lawsuit over a spilled cup of McDonald’s coffee, and shows how the details of a complicated situation can be misinterpreted – and even morph into an urban legend – when a news story is oversimplified. The video traces what happened after 79-year-old Stella Liebeck accidentally spilled a cup of hot coffee onto her lap in a McDonald’s parking lot in 1994, and sued the company. Students will learn about the power of images and video clips in documentary storytelling, and the ways the news documentary format can be used to critique and comment on other news stories. The video is also useful for a discussion of tort law.
The Misunderstood McDonald’s Hot Coffee Lawsuit
Stella Liebeck was vilified when she was awarded millions after spilling McDonald’s coffee in her lap. Her complaint sounded frivolous. But the facts told another story.
The long-running debate over frivolous lawsuits took shape years ago after McDonald’s coffee spilled into a woman’s lap and she was awarded millions in damages. Her complaint sounded frivolous. But the facts told another story.
In 1992, 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.
View full episodes at PBS.org/RetroReport.
- Producer: Bonnie Bertram
- Editor: David Feinberg
- Editor: Sandrine Isambert
In 1992, Stella Liebeck, 79, was burned when a cup of McDonald’s coffee that spilled into her lap. Her injuries resulted in a hospital stay and more than $10,000 in medical bills.
Liebeck, a retired department store clerk, asked McDonald’s for help with her medical bills. When the company offered her only $800, she hired a lawyer, filed a lawsuit and won. A jury awarded her $2.8 million in damages.
News of that award placed the retiree from Albuquerque, NM in an unflattering spotlight. She was ridiculed as the little old lady who spilled coffee on herself and walked away with millions. The story was recounted in news reports, became comedy material on late night talk shows and television sitcoms, and was reshaped again by corporate-backed political operatives, who used it as an argument against frivolous lawsuits against corporations.
This attention distracted public attention from what had actually happened. Liebeck had been sitting in a parked car, not driving, as some accounts had it. She sustained third-degree burns and required skin grafts.
The Albuquerque jury had awarded her $2.6 million in punitive damages, after hearing testimony that McDonald’s had ignored hundreds of customers’ complaints that its coffee was too hot; jurors sought to send the company a message. Liebeck eventually received only a fraction of that amount, and was made a pariah.
Students will learn how an attention-grabbing news story can easily be misunderstood, resulting in a false narrative that becomes deeply ingrained in the national culture. Journalism students will learn the importance of providing context.
- How stories may be more complex than they initially appear, and how oversimplifying details can lead to misinformation.
- How tort law works.
- How media literacy examines the re-shaping of a news story to fit different audiences for different objectives.
- How did Liebeck become injured? How serious and costly were her injuries?
- What was Liebeck’s original request to McDonald’s? How did McDonald’s respond?
- What role did the photos of burn damage play in the trial?
- What facts of the story were misreported?
- Common Core State Standards
- CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
- National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
- D3.3.9-12.Identify evidence that draws information directly and substantively from multiple sources to detect inconsistencies in evidence in order to revise or strengthen claims.
- AP Government and Politics
- Topic 5.12: The Media
Skill 5D: Use refutation, concession, or rebuttal in responding to opposing perspectives.
Theme: Civic Participation in a Representative Democracy (PRD)
- Topic 5.12: The Media