ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 8-18-94): JANE PAULEY: An 81- year old woman has been awarded $2.9 million after she sued McDonald’s, claiming their coffee was too hot.
JOHN LLEWELLYN (ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF COMMUNICATIONS, WAKE FOREST UNIVERSITY): The public perception of it is, Stella Liebeck won a lottery. She bought the coffee, she spilled it on herself and now, look, she’s a millionaire. But of course, the facts are much more complicated than that.
NARRATION: Stella Liebeck was a 79-year-old widow sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car when she was burned on February 27th, 1992. She had recently quit her job as a department store clerk and moved to Albuquerque to be near her daughter.
JUDY ALLEN (STELLA LIEBECK’S DAUGHTER): The day that the burns happened, my mother and my nephew went through the drive-thru at McDonald’s and got breakfast and coffee and they pulled into the parking lot, and in the Ford Probe there’s slanted surfaces everywhere, there’s no place to put the coffee. She put it between her knees and lifted the lid off, and in the process of doing that, spilled the coffee and all of the hot liquid went into the sweat suit that she was wearing and pooled in the seat.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, DATELINE, APRIL, 1995):
STELLA LIEBECK: All I remember is trying to get out of the car. I screamed not realizing I was burned that bad. I knew I was in terrible pain.
NARRATION: The severity of the burns caused Stella Liebeck to go into shock, and her grandson immediately took her to the emergency room.
JUDY ALLEN: She was burned over 16% of her body, 6% of the burns were third degree. She was in the hospital for a week.
NARRATION: Medical bills were $10,000. So Stella reached out to McDonald’s and asked to be reimbursed.
JUDY ALLEN: We couldn’t believe that this could happen over spilling the coffee. So, we wrote a letter to McDonald’s asking them to check the temperature of the coffee and to give recompense for the medical bills, and the response from McDonald’s was an offer of $800.
NARRATION: Stella Liebeck had never sued anyone before Albuquerque attorney Ken Wagner took her case. Before they went to trial, they tried twice to settle out of court, but McDonald’s refused.
KEN WAGNER (ATTORNEY FOR STELLA LIEBECK): We bought a product, it was used as intended, it was unreasonably hot and, therefore, unreasonably dangerous, and those were the essential facts.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, DATELINE, APRIL, 1995):
STELLA LIEBECK: I was not in it for the money, I was in it because I wanted them to bring the temperature down so that other people would not go through the same thing I did.
NARRATION: McDonald’s policy was to serve coffee between 180 and 190 degrees. A burn expert testified that liquid at 180 degrees could cause third degree burns within fifteen seconds. Lawyers produced documents that showed that between 1983 and 1992, nearly 700 people claimed that they had been burned by hot coffee at McDonalds.
KEN WAGNER: McDonald’s was on big-time notice that they had a product that was dangerous and it was burning people. We argued that to the jury, that they were callous and indifferent in simply not turning down the temperature.
NARRATION: An expert for McDonald’s testified that burns are exceedingly rare – one for every 24 million cups of coffee served.
JUDY ALLEN: They just said it’s statistically insignificant, and we’re not going to change what we do.
TRACY JENKS (ATTORNEY FOR MCDONALD’S): People interact with hot beverages all the time in a fast food restaurant and that doesn’t necessarily mean that the restaurant is doing something wrong.
NARRATION: Attorney Tracy Jenks tried the case for McDonald’s and argued that Liebeck bore personal responsibility because she spilled the coffee on herself and that McDonald’s coffee wasn’t any hotter than the coffee at other fast food restaurants. She said the reason the coffee was so hot was because that’s what customers wanted.
TRACY JENKS: McDonald’s had a really, really strong reason for why they brewed their coffee at the temperature they did. It was an industrial standard based on the maximum extraction of the flavor in the maximum holding temperature.
NARRATION: But the jury saw how liquid at that temperature can scald when they were shown graphic photos of Liebeck’s legs and burned groin.
KEN WAGNER: The photos depicted where they had to graft the skin from the side of her legs to close the third-degree burn. And I think if people would have seen the severity of the burns they would’ve realized it was not a laughing matter.
NARRATION: After seven days of testimony and four hours of deliberation, jurors unanimously agreed to award Stella $200,000 in compensatory damages. But because she caused the spill, they reduced that to $160,000. Jurors then set punitive damages to send the message to McDonald’s to turn down the temperature of the coffee.
KEN WAGNER: I remember I could see Judge Scott going like this with his pencil and I thought, oh, I hope he’s counting digits on the verdict form – and he was.
NARRATION: They based the amount on the revenue from two days of coffee sales – $2.7 million. The size of the award got the media’s attention, but it overshadowed the rest of the story. Details of the case and the facts related to how the jury made its decision went mostly unreported.
KEN WAGNER: Several days after the verdict, I had news crews from France, Japan, Germany, in my driveway, wanting to interview me. I mean, I was stunned.
NARRATION: After the verdict came in Wednesday, August 17th, the “Albuquerque Journal” ran the first story. The “Associated Press” and “Reuters” wire services then filed reports, and the story was picked up in dozens of newspapers worldwide. It became an international news event. But as the story’s reach got bigger, the word count got smaller. In some papers, it was not more than a blurb.
JOHN LLEWELLYN: 697 words in the “Albuquerque Journal” became 349 words in the “AP” and became as few as 48 words in various renderings by major metropolitan newspapers. 48 words can’t explain a lot. And then “woman, coffee, millions” sounds like a ripoff, not like a logical consequence of a thoughtful trial.
NARRATION: The report aired on more than a dozen national broadcasts and twice as many local news shows. The condensed telling of the story created its own version of the truth. Instead of pointing out she spilled the coffee in the passenger seat of a parked car, this was the new narrative:
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 8-18-94):
JANE PAULEY: It seems she was holding a cup between her legs while driving.
GEORGE WILL: …clamped it between her legs, drove down the street, spilled it, burned herself, sued McDonald’s and collected.
ARCHIVAL (ABQ NEWS 4, 1994):
REPORTER: Stella has received letters saying stuff like…
STELLA LIEBECK: I was driving down the road, I had no business driving down the road with coffee between my legs and all that stuff. See it’s… just plain ignorant.
JUDY ALLEN: My mother was made the villain in this story. It’s like bullying. It feels like bullying.
ARCHIVAL (THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW):
WOMAN: I mean it’s not like the McDonald’s person leaned over the car and poured it. It was an accident.
JOHN LLEWELLYN: Very much like urban legends, it is a very compelling story. Once everybody decides what is true about something and the media has been sort of an echo chamber for it, then how do you deal with the fact that they might be wrong?
ARCHIVAL (NBC THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO):
JAY LENO: Now she claimed she broke her nose on the sneeze guard at the Sizzler, bending over and looking at the chick peas.
ARCHIVAL (CBS THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH CRAIG FERGUSON):
CRAIG FERGUSON: Oooh, my coffee was too hot! It’s coffee!
NARRATION: Republican lawmakers crafting the “Contract with America” seized the moment. They tapped into public outrage over frivolous lawsuits to promote the Common Sense Legal Reform Act. Liebeck’s case became Exhibit A.
ARCHIVAL (KOMO SEATTLE TV):
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN KASICH: A lady goes through a fast food restaurant, puts coffee in her lap, burns her, her legs and sues and gets a big settlement, that in and of itself is enough to tell you why we need to have tort reform.
ARCHIVAL (HBO “HOT COFFEE,” 4-22-11):
CALA RADIO AD: She spilled hot coffee on her lap while sitting in her car and claimed it was too hot. Every day we hear about another outrageous lawsuit.
NARRATION: Stella’s portrayal as a scheming wanna-be millionaire was based on the jury’s award. But that amount was only a suggestion. In reality, the judge significantly reduced the punitive damages.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 9-14-94):
PAULA ZAHN: The judge reduced the award to about $650,000.
NARRATION: According to a source familiar with the case, it was settled for less than $500,000. Stella was not allowed to talk to the press. But over the last two decades, her lawsuit has become a part of the cultural discourse.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, SEINFELD, 10-5-95):
COSMO KRAMER: Do you think we have a chance?
JACKIE CHILES: Do we have a chance? Get me one coffee drinker on that jury and you’re gonna be a rich man.
NARRATION: Stella’s daughter says that although over the years some stories have given greater context and a new perspective, such as the documentary “Hot Coffee,” her family is still haunted by a perception that doesn’t seem to go away.
TOBY KEITH: Plasma getting’ bigger, Jesus gettin’ smaller, spill a cup of coffee, make a million dollars.
JUDY ALLEN: I like Toby Keith, but he did the “American Ride.” Do we have to keep living this over and over and over again?
NARRATION: Popular misunderstanding of the case is so ingrained that even the legal system has had to learn to grapple with it. In 2011, the Utah Supreme Court ordered a personal injury case retried, out of concern that the defense attorney might have tainted the jury’s decision by comparing the case to Liebeck’s. Meanwhile, courtroom attorneys across the country now use the case to screen potential jurors.
JOHN LLEWELLYN: It’s a wonderful litmus test. If you’re putting someone on a jury, you really have to know how they feel about this case to know whether they are open to the facts that you’re going to present. McDonald’s has been in the public mind cast as the victim. That Stella Liebeck needed to defend her reputation is the saddest piece of this whole story to me.
NARRATION: Stella Liebeck died in 2004, when she was 91.
JUDY ALLEN: The emotion that she went through, she just felt like people were coming at her.
NARRATION: McDonald’s representatives didn’t return emails or calls. But according to current franchisee handbooks, coffee must now be held and served ten degrees lower.