The Truth vs. The Urban Legend

Stella Liebeck
Stella Liebeck

This happened about 20 years ago, and I am fascinated by the difference between what I thought was true and what the facts seem to be nearly 20 years later.

Here’s what the media conveyed to me:

  • A woman drove up to the McDonald’s drive through,
  • bought coffee,
  • put it in her lap,
  • spilled it on herself while driving off,
  • and got $2.9 million dollars from McDonalds
  • an outrage against poor McDonalds

Here’s what the New York Times is reporting as the actual facts of the case:

  • A 79 year old woman, Stella Liebeck, was seated in the passengers’ seat of a parked car.
  • She placed a cup of McDonald’s coffee between her knees as the car had no flat services available to her.
  • She spilled the coffee on herself when she was taking the lid off of the cup.
  • The spill scalded 16% of her body.
  • She had 3rd degree burns over 6% of her body.
  • A Google search of her name under images shows how badly she was burned.
  • The pain was so intense she went into shock.
  • She was hospitalized for a week and had to have extensive skin grafts.
  • The hospital bill was over $10,000. (Think how much more that was to a retiree 20 years ago.)
  • She asked McDonald’s to pay the bill and turn down the temperature of their coffee.
  • She tried to settle with McDonald’s twice.
  • McDonald’s refused, only offering her $800.
  • The coffee was used as intended.
  • The product was unreasonably hot and would cause 3rd degree burns in 15 seconds.
  • McDonald’s coffee was served about 30 degrees hotter than most home coffee machine make coffee.
  • McDonalds knew their coffee was too hot and had burned about 700 people in the previous 9 years.
  • All McDonald’s had to do to keep from scalding all of these people was turn down the temperature of their coffee.
  • McDonald’s felt the number of people harmed by their product was statistically insignificant.
  • Many believe McDonalds has chosen the temperature of their coffee to maximize profits by extracting as many cups of coffee from the beans as possible at the higher temperatures.
  • The jury saw the horrific photos of the severity of the burns, which had become a laughing matter in American culture, and the skin grafts–as her attorney said, “It wasn’t a laughing matter.”
  • The jury awarded Stella $200,000 dollars for compensatory damages but reduced it to $160,000 because she burned herself.
  • The jury then penalized McDonalds to send a message to turn down the temperature of the coffee and based the penalty figure on the revenue from just 2 days of coffee sales: $2.7 million.
  • By the end of the entire process, the case was settled for less than $500,000 (which had to be split between the victim and her attorney).
  • The victim became the villain as corporate America spun the story so they could reform tort liability law in their favor, which they did through the Republican party’s Contract with America.
  • The victim was forbidden to ever talk about the case and died at the age of 91 in 2004.
  • McDonalds now serves it coffee 10 degrees cooler as a result of this case.

The name of the video on YouTube is “Burned by McDonald’s Hot Coffee then the News Media” and is worth watching. The truth versus urban legend.

4 thoughts on “The Truth vs. The Urban Legend”

  1. Surely there were oodles of people who knew the facts back then. No indignant voice spoke up? Everybody just took a wire report and ran with it without curiosity? Where did the distorted version originate?

  2. Tim, you say “corporate America spun the story so they could reform tort liability law in their favor” and imply they were the evil entity responsible. It appears to me they just grabbed hold of a widely held misperception that supported their arguments. Sounds to me more like calling the moving vans because some newspaper said “Dewey Wins!” I fault the journalists and the woman’s attorney for not clearing the record.

  3. The video suggests that most news media around the US and the world truncated the wire story, which was already rather thin. Then the comedians got ahold of it. This is an really interesting tale of how an urban legend is born and then endures in a culture. It’s also an interesting study for how to reclaim truth from legend. I pity Stella. Her daughter recounts how her mother’s being cast as the bully and verbally assailed by people for the rest of her life adversely impacted Stella’s sense of well being from then on. I can’t imagine falsely being the brunt of an urban legend for the rest of your life.

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