You might have heard about this story, but probably not in its entirety. It’s a tale of a woman, a fast-food chain, and a cup of hot coffee. Picture this: It’s 1992, and a 79-year-old woman named Stella Liebeck heads to McDonald’s to grab a cup of coffee with her grandson.
As Stella’s grandson pulls the car over, Stella tries to add cream and sugar to her coffee. And then, the unthinkable happens – she accidentally spills the scalding hot beverage onto her lap. The coffee soaks through her sweatpants, causing third-degree burns on her legs and groin area.
Now, you might think, “Okay, accidents happen, right?” But here’s the twist: Stella’s injuries were so severe that she had to undergo skin grafts and spend eight days in the hospital. She also had a long recovery process that lasted for more than two years.
Stella wasn’t one to take this lying down (literally or figuratively). She reached out to McDonald’s, hoping they’d help cover her medical expenses, which amounted to around $20,000 for past and future expenses. McDonald’s, however, offered her a mere $800. With nowhere else to turn, Stella decided to sue the fast-food giant for negligence.
As the trial unfolded, it came to light that McDonald’s had received over 700 reports of people burning themselves with their hot coffee between 1982 and 1992. It turned out that McDonald’s coffee was served at a temperature between 180°F and 190°F – a whopping 30°F hotter than coffee from other establishments.
Remember, 195-205°F is a great temperature for brewing coffee, but not for serving it!
McDonald’s claimed that the high temperature was to maintain flavor, but it also meant a higher risk of causing severe burns.
The jury sided with Stella, and they awarded her $160,000 in compensatory damages and a staggering $2.7 million in punitive damages. Now, before you gasp, let me clarify that the judge later reduced the punitive damages to $480,000. In the end, Stella and McDonald’s settled for an undisclosed amount.
The case was satirized and immortalized in a 1995 Seinfeld episode called “The Maestro,” in which Kramer hires lawyer Jackie Chiles to represent him after he burns himself trying to smuggle coffee into a movie theatre:
This case has become the stuff of legends, often cited as an example of a frivolous lawsuit. But the truth is, it brought attention to a real issue: the need for businesses to prioritize consumer safety. And who knows, maybe this story has made you think twice about how you handle your hot coffee.
Now, go forth and share this tale with others—because every good story deserves to be heard.