Dec. 1 2014 05:19 PM

How can so many people be wrong about something for so long?


I heard it again. It was during that show The Talk, when one of the guests—some actor I’d never heard of—was talking about frivolous lawsuits and mentioned the famous 1994 McDonald’s hot-coffee case.

“What’s wrong with America,” the actor said, “is that you can drive your car with a coffee on your lap, spill it all over yourself and sue the company who sold it to you for millions of dollars.”

It makes me crazy whenever I hear this case mentioned, because whoever’s mentioning it invariably gets it wrong. I’m willing to bet that even you, dear reader, have an entirely inaccurate impression about this lawsuit and its plaintiff, then-80-year-old Stella Liebeck, who became a national punch line ever so unfairly. What happened to this woman was a travesty. Every talk-show host blasted her, Seinfeld re-scalded her in an episode, Toby Keith and Weird Al mocked her in verse, news anchors smirked while reporting it incorrectly and at dinner tables across America, folks tore her apart with the shiny, sharp silverware of ignorance.

Now, I don’t blame all these people for getting it wrong. I certainly don’t blame you, dear reader, because you and I were lied to; we were manipulated by awful, rotten people with awful, rotten intentions. And while I realize this little niche column, in this little niche market, isn’t going to change the mind of America, I would at least like to add my readers to the small group of people who know what’s what.

So, where to begin? How about with the facts?

For starters, Liebeck was not driving. This was something that most people familiar with the case believed. It’s an important correction because it helped vilify her even more: “You mean she was driving with a coffee on her lap? What an idiot!” But, no, actually, her grandson was driving. He pulled into a parking space so she could add the fixin’s. Having no cup holders, Liebeck placed the coffee between her knees and peeled off the lid. The cup collapsed and poured into her lap.

Also widely and incorrectly reported was that her injuries were minor. Um, yeah. No. The poor old gal suffered third-degree burns. She was hospitalized for eight days, and her survival was questionable. She needed several skin grafts and spent the next two years recovering. If you look at the burn pictures you jaw will drop to the fucking floor.

Another fact that has no basis in fact was the depiction of Liebeck as a money-grubbing old biddy hell-bent on gaming the system. But this was clearly not true. All she wanted was $20,000 for the medical expenses. Twenty-thousand! That’s less money than McDonald’s spends on the rubber bands it uses to bundle its other money. 

McDonald’s counter-offered $800, which is like an airline offering you free peanuts after its plane crashed onto your testicles. It wasn’t until being rejected two more times that she filed suit.

The last myth of the story—that McDonald’s only crime was to serve its coffee piping-hot, the way customers like it—is perhaps the biggest lie of all.

Fact: According to the employee manual, McDonald’s was intentionally holding its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees (most coffee is served at 135 to 140 degrees). It did this despite knowing it was dangerous. 

Fact: In the 10 years prior to the Liebeck suit, McDonald’s received 700 burn claims and paid out $500,000 in settlements.

Fact: McDonald’s quality assurance manager, Christopher Appleton, testified that the company knew burn hazards increase exponentially after 140 degrees.

Fact: McDonald’s coffee cups were made from Styrofoam, which degrades at those temperatures, possibly explaining why the cup collapsed.

Fact: The reason McDonald’s wanted the java to be so hot, according to Appleton’s testimony, was to extend its shelf life. In other words: Speculation: When it’s that scalding, you can’t tell how old and crappy it is. 

So, what happened? How did this story get so horribly misreported? Why was Liebeck scapegoated? Two words: tort reform.

Tort reform is a political movement by large corporations, insurance companies and pro-business conservatives to restrict the ability of injured people to file a civil lawsuit. It also seeks caps on punitive damages. Shortly after the time that coffee excorticated vast swaths of Stella Liebeck’s pelvis, a man named Karl Rove—then a lobbyist for the tobacco industry (which had a special interest in capping punitive damages)—his boy-toy, George W. Bush, and a bunch of tort-reform lobbyists poured millions of propaganda dollars into the public brain-set, basically whipping us into an unfounded whirlwind of loathing for our civil-court system. 

And the case most prominently held up as the worst example of lawsuit frivolity? Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants. The case became the perfect poster bitch for tort reform because, well, “Suing for hot coffee? What’s next, suing for cold ice?” 

And the amazing thing is that it worked! The lobbyists managed to convince the public—the regular Joes and Jolenes who are protected by their unrestricted access to the courts—that the legal rights of injured persons should be limited. 

And this, dear reader, is how and why the public was duped to believe that Stella Liebeck was a money-hungry, system-gaming injury faker who sued the poor old beleaguered McDonald’s corporation because she spilled a not-all-that-hot cup of coffee while driving like a demon with a cup in her lap.

Write to and Edwin Decker blogs at Follow him on Twitter @edwindecker or find him on Facebook.

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