Re-Visiting Hot Coffee Lawsuits and McDonald's

Everyone knows the story of the woman who spilled coffee on herself at a McDonald's, then sued because the coffee was too hot. What a joke, right? The website The Consumerist has a post up today that references that old case with news about new lawsuits against McDonald's over the temperature of its coffee. And the tone of The Consumerist toward that old case is familiar: eye-rolling.

That's the tone most people take - if not outright mockery. I mean, c'mon, suing because the coffee is too hot? Give me a break!

The problem with that attitude is that most people never heard the full story about that original case, 20 years ago. Or the extent of the injuries suffered by the plaintiff. Or the fact that her case had been preceeded by hundreds of others in which people were burned by McDonald's coffee. The actual facts of the case led one historian to call it "the most misunderstood story in America."

But thanks to the terrific Retro Report, it doesn't have to be misunderstood today. Retro Report recently tackled the topic of that infamous hot-coffee lawsuit against McDonald's, introducing its video this way:

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.

Here is Retro Report's examination of the case, and what really happened:

By the way, you can learn more about the documentary mentioned in the quote above - Hot Coffee - here.