The 1994 verdict for Stella Liebeck became fodder for critics of America’s lawsuit-happy culture, as well as a punchline for late-night TV shows and sitcoms such as “Seinfeld.” While the massive jury award got the media’s attention, many news outlets misconstrued the story.
“This story is the most widely misunderstood story in America,” Liebeck’s lawyer Ken Wagner told Retro Report, a project that seeks to add context to high-profile news events from the past.
News outlets back in the early 1990s reported that Liebeck was attempting to drive with coffee between her legs when she scalded herself. The New York Times, which posted the Retro Report video, reported that she got a “big jury award” for “coffee burn.” By all appearances, she walked away a rich woman after a little spilled coffee.
The real story is more traumatic and less lucrative than the media made it out to be. Liebeck was actually sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car when her 180-degree coffee spilled. The coffee — which was 30 degrees hotter than typical home brews — burned 16% of her body, according to Retro Report. Six per cent of those burns were third-degree.
Liebeck was in the hospital for a week and had $US10,000 worth of medical bills, according to Retro Report. She only sued McDonald’s after it refused to pay all of her medical bills, her daughter told Retro Report.
While a jury did award her $US2.9 million, the judge drastically cut that amount to about $US650,000. The case ultimately settled for about $US500,000. (Even plaintiffs who win cases will sometimes end up settling for less money to avoid an appeal.) Her daughter said the mocking news coverage continued to haunt her family.
In 2011, HBO put out a documentary called “Hot Coffee” that profiled Liebeck, and how her case became a “rallying cry” for corporate interests that wanted to cap jury awards.