Stella Liebeck & McDonalds Coffee (fwd)

Fred Shapiro fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Fri Dec 6 19:27:29 UTC 2002

Since there was a recent thread here touching on "tart lawyers" and the
McDonald's case, I thought posting a message from another listserv (with
the author's permission) on this subject might be of interest to some of
you.  I know this is wildly off-topic, but, hell, if Barry hasn't been
kicked off yet for off-topic-ness I should be safe.

Fred Shapiro

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 28 Nov 2002 14:16:58 -0500
From: Chris Shaver <cc_shaver at>
To: law-lib at
Subject: Re: Stella Liebeck  & McDonalds Coffee

To this day, the Stella Liebeck story is still quite a contentious issue.
Just his morning I got 2 emails from different friends, purporting to tell
me about all of the unfair jury awards this event spawned.  Since I work at
a high paying job and have tons of free time on my hands and an insatiable
curiosity about Urban Legends, I'll share with you all what I've found.

First, ALL of the other stories, posted at the bottom are false, every one
of them!  Check these 2 pages out for confirmation. and

Next, some background that I researched about the whole Stella Liebeck
story...Both against and for the issue!

February 1992, the infamous date that took the "happy" out of the Happy
Meal.  79-year-old Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico was in the
passenger seat of her grandson's car when she was severely burned at
McDonalds. Liebeck received a cup of coffee that was served in a Styrofoam
cup at the drive-through window, and the rest is history.

Her sweatpants absorbed the scalding coffee and stuck it to her skin. A
vascular surgeon determined that Liebeck suffered third-degree burns over 6%
of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum (the space between her
anus and her vagina), buttocks, and genital and groin areas. She spent a
week in the hospital, and underwent skin grafting.

She sought a settlement of $2,000 and McDonalds refused. Now, common sense
would dictate McDonalds should easily defeat such a frivolous a lawsuit, but
they failed to reason in the X Factor: a dumb jury.  In 1994 they awarded
Liebeck, now 81 years old, $200,000 in compensatory damages, reduced to
$160,000 because the jury found Liebeck only 20% at fault in the spill.

The jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, equalling
approximately two days of McDonalds' coffee sales. The court later reduced
the punitive award to $480,000, or three times compensatory damages, even
though the judge called McDonalds' conduct "reckless, callous and wilful".
Right, it's reckless, callous and wilful to make hot coffee hot.

There was later a "secret" settlement, so the final tally will never be

But there is another side to this "travesty of justice". You probably never
heard that after the week in an Albuquerque hospital, she spent about three
weeks recuperating at home with her daughter. Then she was hospitalized
again for skin grafts. She had lost 20 pounds - down to 83 pounds - and was
practically immobilized. The grafts were almost as painful as the burn.

Mrs. Liebeck initially wrote to McDonald's asking the company to turn down
the coffee temperature. She was not planning to sue but she thought she was
entitled to her out-of-pocket expenses, about $2,000, plus lost wages of her
daughter who stayed home to care for her.  McDonald's offered her $800.00.

She then did what many aggrieved people do. She went hunting for a lawyer.
That lawyer eventually took her case to the cornerstone of your justice
system: a jury. At first, this was a jury that was annoyed at having to
listen to a case about spilled coffee. But they learned three interesting
things that changed their minds.

A/ That coffee at 170 degrees Fahrenheit would cause second-degree burns
within 3.5 seconds of hitting the skin.

B/ That McDonalds heats their coffee almost 20 degrees higher than other
"fast food" restaurants.

C/ Finally, that McDonalds had not lowered the heat under the coffee despite
receiving over 700 burn complaints over the previous 10 years.

This tends to put a different spin on the whole "spurious litigation"
aspect, doesn't it?  Yet, you'll still probably say she was an idiot for
putting a hot coffee cup in her lap in the first place.

Let me tell you Stella Liebeck's REAL story.

That morning she did not have time for breakfast because her son was taking
an early flight out of Albuquerque, so she left at dawn for the 60-mile trip
to the airport from Santa Fe. After she dropped Jim off, she and her
grandson stopped at McDonald's for breakfast. She ordered breakfast in the
drive through lane and then her grandson parked the car so she could add
some cream and sugar to her coffee She tugged at the cup to try to get the
top off.

Still pretty stupid, eh? BUT...her dashboard was slanted and she had no cup
holder in the Ford Probe. So she put the cup between her knees and tried to
pull the top off. She tugged and scalding coffee gushed into her lap. She
screamed and Chris leaped from the car to help her.  Desperately, she pulled
at her sweat suit squirming in a bucket seat as the coffee seared her skin
By the time they reached an emergency room, second and third degree burns
had spread across her buttocks and her lap.

What amazed me about all this was that her lawyer never had the idea to sue
Ford over the bad design of the Probe, that forced her to do something that
her common sense dictated was stupid.  After all, if she was really that
stupid, she probably wouldn't have lived to see 81.

Here are all the BOGUS Stella Award nominees that are floating around the
Internet via email right now...

"It's time once again to consider the candidates for the annual Stella
Awards."   The Stella's are named after 81-year-old Stella Liebeck who
spilled coffee on herself and successfully sued McDonalds.

That case inspired the Stella awards for the most frivolous successful
lawsuits in the United States. The following are NOT this year's candidates,
they are just Urban Legends.

1. A jury of her peers awarded Kathleen Robertson of Austin, Texas, $780,000
after breaking her ankle tripping over a toddler who was running inside a
furniture store. The owners of the store were understandably surprised at
the verdict, considering the misbehaving little toddler was Ms. Robertson's

2. A 19-year-old Carl Truman of Los Angeles won $74,000 and medical expenses
when his neighbour ran over his hand with a Honda Accord. Mr. Truman
apparently didn't notice there was someone at the wheel of the car when he
was trying to steal his neighbour's hubcaps.

3. Terrence Dickson of Bristol, Pennsylvania, was leaving a house he had
just finished robbing by way of the garage. He was not able to get the
garage door to go up since the automatic door opener was malfunctioning. He
couldn't re-enter the house because the door connecting the house and garage
locked when he pulled it shut. The family was on vacation, and Mr. Dickson
found himself locked in the garage for eight days. He subsisted on a case of
Pepsi he found, and a large bag of dry dog food. He sued the homeowner's
insurance claiming the situation caused him undue mental anguish. The jury
agreed to the tune of $500,000.

4. Jerry Williams of Little Rock, Arkansas, was awarded $14,500 and medical
expenses after being bitten on the buttocks by his next-door neighbour's
beagle. The beagle was on a chain in its owner's fenced yard. The award was
less than sought because the jury felt the dog might have been just a little
provoked at the time by Mr. Williams who was shooting it repeatedly with a
pellet gun.

5. A Philadelphia restaurant was ordered to pay Amber Carson of Lancaster,
Pennsylvania, $113,500 after she slipped on a soft drink and broke her
coccyx (tailbone). The beverage was on the floor because Ms. Carson had
thrown it at her boyfriend 30 seconds earlier during an argument.

6. Kara Walton of Claymont, Delaware, successfully sued the owner of a
nightclub in a neighbouring city when she fell from the bathroom window to
the floor and knocked out her two front teeth. This occurred while Ms.
Walton was trying to sneak through the window in the ladies room to avoid
paying the $3.50 cover charge. She was awarded $12,000 and dental expenses.

7. This year's favourite could easily be Mr. Merv Grazinski of Oklahoma
City, Oklahoma. Mr. Grazinski purchased a brand new 32-foot Winnebago motor
home. On his first trip home, having driven onto the freeway, he set the
cruise control at 70 mph and calmly left the drivers seat to go into the
back and make himself a cup of coffee. Not surprisingly, the RV left the
freeway, crashed and overturned. Mr. Grazinski sued Winnebago for not
advising him in the owner's manual that he couldn't actually do this. The
jury awarded him $1,750,000 plus a new motor home. The company actually
changed their manuals on the basis of this suit, just in case there were any
other complete morons buying their recreation vehicles.

Best regards,

Chris Shaver, BSW
Coordinator/Employment Counsellor
St. Charles Mountain Adult Education Centre
Employment Assistance Resource Centre
150 East 5th Street, Hamilton, ON   L9A 2Z8
Pager: (905) 974 - 6213 Fax: (905) 575 - 5021 Phone: (905) 575 - 5021
Open 9 AM to 9 PM Mon. to Thurs., 10 AM to 4 PM Fri. & Sat., Closed Sunday

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