Lesson Plan

Journalism and Media Literacy: McDonald’s Hot Coffee


This 11-minute video introduces students to a misunderstood lawsuit over a spilled cup of McDonald’s coffee, and shows how the details of a complicated situation can be misinterpreted – and even morph into an urban legend – when a news story is oversimplified. The video traces what happened after 79-year-old Stella Liebeck accidentally spilled a cup of hot coffee onto her lap in a McDonald’s parking lot in 1994, and sued the company. Students will learn about the power of images and video clips in documentary storytelling, and the ways the news documentary format can be used to critique and comment on other news stories. The video is also useful for a discussion of tort law.

Content Advisory:

This video contains images of burns on a human body.


  • How stories may be more complex than they initially appear, and how oversimplifying details can lead to misinformation.
  • How tort law works.
  • How media literacy examines the re-shaping of a news story to fit different audiences for different objectives.
  • Social Studies
  • Media/News Literacy
  • Civics & Government
  • Journalism
  • Law
  • Justice
  • Law
  • Cultural and Social Change
  • Media Literacy
  • The Media
  • 1990s America
  • The Modern Era (1980-Present)
For Teachers

Introducing the Lesson

In 1992, Stella Liebeck, 79, was burned when a cup of McDonald’s coffee that spilled into her lap. Her injuries resulted in a hospital stay and more than $10,000 in medical bills.

Liebeck, a retired department store clerk, asked McDonald’s for help with her medical bills. When the company offered her only $800, she hired a lawyer, filed a lawsuit and won. A jury awarded her $2.8 million in damages.

News of that award placed the retiree from Albuquerque, NM in an unflattering spotlight. She was ridiculed as the little old lady who spilled coffee on herself and walked away with millions. The story was recounted in news reports, became comedy material on late night talk shows and television sitcoms, and was reshaped again by corporate-backed political operatives, who used it as an argument against frivolous lawsuits against corporations.

This attention distracted public attention from what had actually happened. Liebeck had been sitting in a parked car, not driving, as some accounts had it. She sustained third-degree burns and required skin grafts.

The Albuquerque jury had awarded her $2.6 million in punitive damages, after hearing testimony that McDonald’s had ignored hundreds of customers’ complaints that its coffee was too hot; jurors sought to send the company a message. Liebeck eventually received only a fraction of that amount, and was made a pariah.

Essential Questions

  • How did Liebeck become injured? How serious and costly were her injuries?
  • What was Liebeck’s original request to McDonald’s? How did McDonald’s respond?
  • What role did the photos of burn damage play in the trial?
  • What facts of the story were misreported?

Lesson Procedure

Media Literacy Questions:

  • What was the intent and who were the audience for the news reports on the Liebeck trial?
  • How did comedy shows and political interests reshape the news story? Who were their audiences? What were their goals?
  • How did Retro Report create a new narrative using those that emerged from the original event? Who was the intended audience? What was the goal?


  • Why does Wake Forest University Professor John Llewellyn call this lawsuit the most misunderstood story in America? What does this misunderstanding reveal?
  • Think carefully about the use of imagery and photos in this story. In 1994, many people would not have had access to the images of Liebeck’s burns, and the images would not have been shared with TV viewers. Do you think the use of social media today would have changed the narrative of this story? If so, how?
  • What does this story teach us about source awareness? Think back to when the narrator says, “but as the story’s reach got bigger, the word count got smaller.” What was the impact of compressing the story?
  • Pretend you’re a TV producer: What could you have done differently to tell a more accurate story about Stella Liebeck and her lawsuit?
  • Does this video bring to mind other events that you could research to find out whether or not you know the whole story?

Additional Resources

See how professor Christina Robinson is using this video in her journalism class.Retro Report 
Transcript for "The Misunderstood McDonald's Hot Coffee Lawsuit"Retro Report 
"Not Just a Hot Cup Anymore"Retro Report/The New York Times 

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Identify evidence that draws information directly and substantively from multiple sources to detect inconsistencies in evidence in order to revise or strengthen claims.

Skill 5D: Use refutation, concession, or rebuttal in responding to opposing perspectives.

Theme: Civic Participation in a Representative Democracy (PRD)

Questions? Tips? Concerns? Reach out to our Director of Education, David Olson: dolson@retroreport.com