Stella Liebeck’s Case: What Really Happened

May it Please the Court:

I know quite well that not all of lawsuits are frivolous abuse of the American Justice System. Many cases indeed involve real issues, real injuries, and deserve real compensation. And some don’t. That’s why I stress that you should read the cases before you judge.

How about, for instance, Stella herself? Much of the coverage about Stella Liebeck has been grossly unfair. When you have a more complete summary of the facts, you might change your mind about her. Or they may reinforce your thoughts on the case.

Her lawsuit was filed  after an incident on February 27, 1992. Did you know the following aspects of the 1994 Stella vs. McDonald’s case?

The Usual Facts Recited

  • Stella was not driving when she pulled the lid off her scalding McDonald’s coffee. Her grandson was driving the car, and he had pulled over to stop so she could add cream and sugar to the cup.
  • Stella was burned badly (some sources say six percent of her skin was burned, other sources say 16 percent was). She needed two years of treatment and rehabilitation, including skin grafts. McDonald’s refused an offer to settle with her for $20,000 in medical costs.
  • McDonald’s quality control managers specified that its coffee should be served at 180–190 degrees Fahrenheit. Liquids at that temperature can cause third-degree burns in 2-7 seconds. Such burns require skin grafting, debridement and whirlpool treatments to heal, and the resulting scarring is typically permanent.
  • From 1982 to 1992, McDonald’s coffee burned more than 700 people, usually slightly but sometimes seriously, resulting in some number of other claims and lawsuits.
  • Witnesses for McDonald’s admitted in court that consumers are unaware of the extent of the risk of serious burns from spilled coffee served at McDonald’s required temperature, admitted that it did not warn customers of this risk, could offer no explanation as to why it did not, and testified that it did not intend to turn down the heat even though it admitted that its coffee is “not fit for consumption” when sold because it is too hot.

But that’s just the plaintiff’s side. Have you ever heard the other side?

The Neglected Facts

  • While Stella was awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages, this amount was reduced by 20 percent (to $160,000) because the jury found her 20 percent at fault. Where did the rest of the $2.9 million figure in? She was awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages — but the judge later reduced that amount to $480,000, or three times the “actual” damages that were awarded.
  • The resulting $640,000 wasn’t the end either. Liebeck and McDonald’s entered into secret settlement negotiations rather than go to appeal. The amount of the settlement is not known — it’s secret!
  • The plaintiffs were apparently able to document 700 cases of burns from McDonald’s coffee over 10 years, or 70 burns per year. But that doesn’t take into account how many cups are sold without incident. In court, a McDonald’s consultant pointed out the 700 cases in 10 years represents just 1 injury per 24 million cups sold! For every injury, no matter how severe, 23,999,999 people managed to drink their coffee without any injury whatever. Isn’t that proof that the coffee is not “unreasonably dangerous”?
  • Even in the eyes of an obviously sympathetic jury, Stella was judged to be 20 percent at fault — she did, after all, spill the coffee into her lap all by herself. The car was stopped, so she presumably was not bumped to cause the spill. Indeed she chose to hold the coffee cup between her knees instead of any number of safer locations as she opened it. Should she have taken more responsibility for her own actions?
  • And Here’s the Kicker: Coffee is supposed to be served in the range of 185 degrees! The National Coffee Association recommends coffee be brewed at “between 195-205 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal extraction” and drunk “immediately.” If not drunk immediately, it should be “maintained at 180-185 degrees Fahrenheit.” (Source: NCAUSA.) Exactly what, then, did McDonald’s do wrong? Did it exhibit “willful, wanton, reckless or malicious conduct” — the standard in New Mexico for awarding punitive damages?

In a 2007 article about the True Stella Awards, ABC News called Stella’s case “the poster child of excessive lawsuits.” Detractors have noted McDonald’s reduced the temperature target for coffee because of Stella’s lawsuit. Not exactly: McDonald’s current policy is to serve coffee at up to several degrees higher than before: 176–194 degrees F (80–90 C), rather than the target noted by attorneys during the case (180–190 degrees F, as noted above), though both average out to 185 degrees.

About Stella Liebeck

Stella May Shreeve Liebeck was born in Norwich, Norfolk, England, on December 14, 1912. Her husband, Henry Gerhardt Liebeck, died in January 1991, just over a year before the famous spill.

As for her injury: why the discrepancy between “six percent” and “16 percent” burn area? One source said that six percent was the third-degree burn area, and 16 percent was “lesser burns.”

Stella died on August 5, 2004, at 91 years old.

The Jury Has Decided

The Court of Public Opinion has issued its verdict: Stella has become an American icon. Rightly or wrongly, she is a symbol of the American Tort system gone wrong, and most have heard of her case — and have an opinion on it.

For more than 20 years, the term “Stella Award” has been used to refer to any lawsuit that sounds outrageous. Because of this huge name recognition, I chose to continue the name that captured the public’s attention like no other: “Stella Awards”. I did not name the awards myself.

But rather than use fabricated stories to illustrate a real problem, my goal is to legitimize the “Stella Awards” name by reporting real case stories (in the This is True tradition) to get the point across much more powerfully; thus, the “True Stella Awards”.

Abuse of the system is going on, and sometimes judges and juries grievously err and set terrible precedents. Don’t believe it? Read my book for a lot more on this issue.

Submitted by:, In Pro Per

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