The True Story of The Woman Who Sued McDonald’s Over Hot Coffee and Won $2.9 Million

There's a lot more to the tale than what you heard originally. The NY Times investigates.

Photo: New York Times

Photo: New York Times

The NYTimes put out a mini documentary as part of their ‘Retro Report’ video series, taking a closer look at the case of 79-year-old Stella Liebeck, who famously sued McDonald’s 20 years ago and was awarded 2.9 million dollars. Liebeck ordered coffee at a McDonald’s drive-through in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1992. She spilled the coffee, was burned, and one year later, sued McDonald’s. But it seems that the real story of Stella Liebeck was distorted by the media.

“Her story became a media sensation and fodder for talk-show hosts, late-night comedians, sitcom writers and even political pundits. But cleverness may have come at the expense of context,” reports the NYTimes.

One thing the media definitely left out: Liebeck burned over 16% of her body, and 6%of the burns were third-degree. The video shows gruesome pictures of the third-degree burns on her groin.

Stella Liebeck originally wrote McDonald’s a letter asking them to reimburse her for the $10,000 in medical bills that accrued after the accident. McDonald’s offered Liebeck a mere $800, so she sued. She tried to settle out of court, but McDonald’s refused. Lawyers produced documents that showed between 1983 and 1992, nearly 700 people claimed that they had been burned by hot coffee at McDonald’s. Finally, the video reveals that the 2.9 million dollars awarded to Liebeck was eventually lowered to about $500,000.

“The public perception of it is Stella Liebeck won a lottery,” says a professor of communications at Lakeforest University. The Liebeck vs. McDonald’s case became “a rallying cry for those who believed our legal system had run amok.”

Watch the video below to learn surprising facts about the Stella Liebeck story, then read this NYTimes piece about how the world has changed since the lawsuit.

[via The New York Times]

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