You might not know Stella Liebeck’s name, but you know who she is. She’s the lady that burned herself with hot coffee and successfully sued McDonald’s. She became the poster child for frivolous lawsuits, a reputation that she did not deserve. The media blasted her, mocked her, and twisted the facts to depict her as greedy, sue-happy, and eager to manipulate the system. They were eager to portray her as the villain and McDonald’s as the victim. The fact is that McDonald’s knew that they had a dangerous product. Their coffee was sold at 180–190 °F, which is enough to cause a third-degree burn in as little as two seconds. They had over 700 separate reports of severe burns caused by their overly hot coffee and they simply ignored them or paid off the victims until Stella Liebeck came along.
Stella Liebeck was a 79-year-old lady wearing sweat pants sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car when she removed the lid to add cream and sugar and accidentally spilled the cup on her lap. Her sweat pants acted like a sponge and held the coffee against her groin, buttocks, and thighs. She got third-degree burns over 6% of her body and first to second-degree burns over 16% of her body. She had to get skin grafts, lost over twenty pounds, and spent over two weeks in the hospital. She was in real pain, and the jury was aware of it. They awarded her with 2.7 million dollars, which the judge reduced to $640,000, and Liebeck and McDonald’s eventually settled out of court for under $600,000.
But the media latched on to the $2.7 million, and so the urban legend goes that a dumb lady spilled hot coffee on herself while driving, sued, and became a millionaire. Stella Liebeck became a joke, a laughing stock, a punchline. She might have won the trial, but she lost her dignity and her reputation. You can’t believe everything that the media says. Stella Liebeck really was a victim, and in more ways than one.
Critically Rated at 15/17
Written, Rated, and Reviewed by Brendan H. Young