Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

A $2.9 Million Coffee Spill

In 1994, Stella Liebeck spilled red-hot McDonald’s coffee into her lap and sued the company. The jury awarded her $2.9 million dollars. Did she win the liability jackpot, or did she deserve every penny?

On a warm summer morning, 79-year-old Stella sat in the passenger seat as her grandson drove through a McDonald’s drive-through and bought a cup of coffee. 

Stella wanted to add cream and sugar to her coffee, but the 1989 Ford Probe didn’t have cup holders. So her grandson stopped in the car lot, where Stella freed up her hands by placing the cup between her knees. Next, Stella put her fingers on the far side of the lid and pulled.

The lid came undone, and so did the cup.

Eight ounces of blistering coffee shot out of the cup and down her cotton sweatpants. 

She was severely burnt and needed skin grafts. The incident racked up a medical bill of $10,000.

Stella wrote a long letter to McDonald’s where she asked if the temperature of the coffee could be lowered, plus recompense for her bills.

McDonald’s got back to her and offered a measly $800.

After two failed attempts to get her money, Stella took McDonald’s to court. Where she began a crusade against sizzling coffee.

Which may sound a little extreme.

But McDonald’s policy was to serve coffee of roughly 82 degrees Celsius. About 25 degrees warmer than home coffee-makers.

And when Stella’s lawyer did some digging, he found out that almost 700 people were burned by McDonald’s coffee in the last ten years.

So McDonald’s knew that their coffee was burning its customers. But the fast food chain refused to change the serving temperature saying that the burn victims were “statistically insignificant.”

After seven days in court, the jury awarded Stella $200,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. Although the parties later settled on a total of $640,000.

The next day, Stella’s story was covered by newspapers across the world. And rarely in her favor.

Instead of a victim, Stella was often portrayed as a villain or a dunce.

Jay Leno joked she had another accident where “she broke her nose on the sneeze guard at the Sizzler bending over looking at the chickpeas.”

Republican lawmakers used Stella’s case to prove tort law is exploitable by scheming millionaire wannabes.

And she received countless angry letters saying that she was a no-good cheat.

But there is one important fact that all these people overlooked, Stella never demanded millions of dollars. Only reimbursement of her $10,000 in medical bills and a reasonably warmed cup of coffee.

Because most media outlets left out that tidbit of information, the world pitied a careless multi billion dollar organisation, and turned against an elderly lady who had third degree burns on her groin that needed two years of medical treatment.

P.S. Today’s post is in no way an attack on Jay Leno or comedy in general. Like journalists have the right to write about anything, comedians have a right to joke about anything. But there’s one big difference between the two: journalists write to capture the truth, comedians write to get a laugh. In Stella’s case, most journalists failed their jobs.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach