The Real McStory: How a Grandma, a Cup of Coffee, and a Lawsuit Changed Fast Food Forever

In 1992, a 79-year-old woman named Stella Liebeck headed to McDonald's to grab a cup of coffee with her grandson.

Takeout coffee cup with McCafe written on it.

Last Updated on December 19, 2023

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.

Stella Liebeck
Stella Liebeck. (AP)

The Spill

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.

Flaming McDonald's coffee cup
© frankieleon | Creative Commons

The Aftermath

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.

Seeking Justice

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.

The Trial

Gavel on top of a book on top of a pile of U.S. currency

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 Verdict

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 Legacy

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.

In ninety-two, a tale began to brew,
A grandma's morning marred by scalding pain.
Her coffee, far too hot, a spill did stain
Her skin with burns, a sight to rend hearts through.
She sought for aid, but found neglect anew,
McDonald's cold as their hot coffee's bane.
To court they went, where truth would not be slain,
A battle fought, in public's watchful view.
The jury's voice declared the coffee's fault,
For serving heat that harm could not disguise.
The verdict spoke: a change was due, a halt
To careless ways, a need to realize
That safety must precede the coffee vault,
A lesson learned beneath the public's eyes.

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