Stella Liebeck was vilified when she was awarded millions after spilling McDonald’s coffee in her lap. Her complaint sounded frivolous. But the facts told another story.

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The Misunderstood McDonald's Hot Coffee Lawsuit

The long-running debate over frivolous lawsuits took shape years ago after McDonald’s coffee spilled into a woman’s lap and she was awarded millions in damages. Her complaint sounded frivolous. But the facts told another story.

In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck ordered coffee at a McDonald’s drive-through in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She spilled the coffee, was burned, and a year later, sued McDonald’s. The jury awarded her $2.9 million dollars.

Jurors heard testimony for a week and deliberated for hours. They learned that she was burned over 16% of her body, and had third degree burns on her groin. They also learned that McDonald’s had received nearly 700 complaints about hot coffee burns in the almost 10 years before Stella’s trial.

But those details went mostly unreported, and the public made a quicker judgment. Stella became a symbol for frivolous lawsuits and fodder for talk show hosts, late night comedians, sitcom writers, and even political pundits. The headlines, referring to an elderly grandmother spilling coffee from McDonald’s and winning millions of dollars, practically wrote themselves. But cleverness came at the expense of context, and despite some more detailed reports that offered greater context and a new perspective, such as the documentary Hot Coffee, most people still don’t know the extent of Liebeck’s injuries.

Wake Forest University Professor John Llewellyn calls Liebeck’s lawsuit the most misunderstood story in America.

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