On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico was riding alongside her grandson in a 1989 Ford Probe when she ordered a 49-cent cup of coffee from a McDonald’s drive-through window. When she got it her grandson parked the car so that Stella could add cream and sugar to her coffee, but when she pulled on the lid to do so, the coffee spilled onto Stella’s cotton sweatpants, which then held the coffee against her thigh, butt, and groin, scalding her with what was latter found to be 180°F coffee.

Stella was taken to the hospital, where she remained for eight days while she had skin grafting done to heal the 3rd degree burns on her skin, losing 20 pounds (1/5 her body weight) in the process. Upon release she wound up needing 3 weeks of care, which her daughter provided, but still suffered partial disability for two years and permanent disfiguration.

Stella sued McDonald’s for the burn, seeking an amount that would cover both her past and future medical expenses and her daughter’s lost income. She tried multiple times to settle, but each time McDonald refused her offer.

And thus, in a week-long trial beginning August 8, 1994, Stella sued McDonald’s for gross negligence for selling unreasonably dangerous, defectively made coffee.

 

The Case

Much of the trial was spent arguing about the appropriate heat for coffee, with Stella’s lawyers arguing for a lower one while McDonald’s argued their consumers, who mostly commuted, wanted it hotter so it’d stay hot longer (a fact disproved as the trial went on and it was revealed McDonald’s knew most people drank it immediately and had settled over 700 reports of burning). Ultimately the 12-person jury held for Stella, saying McDonalds’ ”warning: hot coffee” label wasn’t enough to avoid the harm she suffered, and awarded her a total of $2.9 million dollars in damages that the judge eventually reduced to a total of $640,000. Both McDonald’s and Stella appealed, but it never went to court: this time, they were able to settle for an undisclosed amount.

 

The Point

Unfortunately, the aftermath of this case is a tragic one. Stella herself died in 2004, her daughter saying that the burns and the court proceedings had “taken their toll” on her and that in the end she had “no quality of life,” with the settlement being just enough to pay for Stella to have a live-in nurse. And the case itself has been badly distorted, with corporation ad campaigns having spun it as a classic example of a frivolous lawsuit. But even distorted it remains a well-known tort case, and it’s one worth learning the truth about.