You probably haven't heard the name Stella Liebeck. But if you were alive in the early nineties, you probably know all about her.

Liebeck was the "little old lady" at the center of the infamous "McDonald's coffee lawsuit." And for several years, her story was in every newspaper, on every late-night TV show, and being discussed in pretty much every American living room.

The story you probably heard goes something like this:

A woman spilled coffee on herself at McDonald's -- something people everywhere do all the time and totally not a big deal -- saw the opportunity to get rich, and sued McDonald's for millions. It illustrates everything that's wrong with the culture of frivolous lawsuits in America.

There's only one problem.

The story you probably heard is wrong.

Or, at the very least, woefully incomplete.

As this New York Times documentary makes clear, the spill was very, very far from "not a big deal." Liebeck suffered nightmarish injuries, including massive third-degree burns. They were so bad that she went into shock, and was immediately rushed to the emergency room, where she incurred $10,000 in medical bills.

Initially, Liebeck only asked McDonald's to reimburse her for her medical bills. But when they offered her less than a tenth of what she owed, she felt she had no choice but to sue.

Why bring this up now?

Well, on May 6, 2015, a police officer in North Carolina went to court to argue that Starbucks should compensate him for a free cup of coffee he spilled on himself, claiming that it gave him third degree burns and activated his Crohn's disease.

And already, with snarky headlines about how the "coffee was free," and how he took pictures before going to the emergency room, implying that he has no right to complain.

Ultimately, the court will decide whether his complaint has merit.

But before we rush to judge him, and make him a laughingstock, or hold him up as an example of everything that's wrong with our legal system...

We need to make sure we have all the facts.

View transcript Hide transcript

Female Reporter 1: In Albuquerque, New Mexico an elderly woman was severely burned when she spilled a cup of McDonald's coffee in her lap.

Female Reporter 2: An 81-year-old woman has been awarded $2.9 million after she sued McDonald's claiming their coffee was too hot.

Male Reporter 1: Stella Liebeck spilled just eight ounces of coffee, but she attracted a flood of attention. The jury's award set off a media frenzy and became a rallying cry for those who believed our legal system had run amok.

woman 1: I think it's absurd.

Male Reporter 1: But as her story cycled through newspaper headlines, talk show story lines and late night punch lines, one thing was lost, the facts.

John: This story is the most widely misunderstood story in America. 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 when of course the facts are much more complicated than that.

Male Reporter 1: Stella Liebeck was a 79-year-old widow sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car when she was burned on February 27, 1992. She'd recently quit her job as a department store clerk and moved to Albuquerque to be near her daughter.

Daughter: The day that the burns happened, my mother and my nephew went through the drive through at McDonald's and got breakfast and coffee. And they pulled into the parking lot. 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.

Ms. 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.

Male Reporter 1: The severity of the burns caused Stella Liebeck to go into shock and her grandson immediately took her to the emergency room.

Daughter: She was burned over 16% of her body. Six percent of the burns were third degree. She was in the hospital for a week.

Male Reporter 1: Medical bills were $10,000. So, Stella reached out to McDonald's and asked to be reimbursed.

Daughter: 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.

Male Reporter 1: 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.

Attorney: We bought a product. It was used as intended. It was unreasonably hot and therefore, unreasonably dangerous and those were the essential facts.

Ms. Liebeck: I was not in it for the money. I was in it because I'd love them to bring the temperature down so that other people would not go through the same thing I did.

Male Reporter 1: McDonald's policy was to serve coffee between 180 and 190 degrees. That's about 30 degrees warmer than most home coffee brewing machines. A burn expert testified that liquid at 180 degrees could cause third degree burns within 15 seconds. Lawyers produced documents that showed that between 1983 and 1992 nearly 700 people claimed that they had been burned by hot coffee at McDonald's.

Attorney: 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 and simply not turning down the temperature.

Male Reporter 1: An expert for McDonald's testified that burns are exceedingly rare. One for every 24 million cups of coffee served.

Daughter: They just said it's statistically insignificant and we're not going to change what we do.

Tracy: 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.

Male Reporter 1: Attorney, Tracy Jenks tried the case for McDonald's and argued that Mrs. 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: 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 and the maximum holding temperature.

Male Reporter 1: But the jury saw how liquid at that temperature can scold when they were shown graphic photos of Mrs. Liebeck's burned groin.

Attorney: The photos depicted where they had to graph 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 have realized it was not a laughing matter.

Male Reporter 1: After seven days of testimony and four hours of deliberation, jurors came up with a comprehensive answer to a complicated case. They unanimously agreed to award Stella $200,000 in compensatory damages, but because she caused the spill they reduced that to $160,000. Jurors set punitive damages to send the message to McDonald's to turn down the temperature of the coffee.

Attorney: 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.

Male Reporter 1: 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.

Attorney: Several days after the verdict, I had news crews from France, Japan, Germany in my driveway wanting to interview me. I was stunned.

Male Reporter 1: After the verdict came in Wednesday, August 17th, the Albuquerque Journal ran the first story, the Associated Press in 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.

Attorney: Six hundred and ninety-seven 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. Forty-eight words can't explain a lot and then woman, coffee, millions sounds like a rip-off not like a logical consequence of a thoughtful trial.

Male Reporter 1: 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.

Female Reporter 2: It seems she was holding a cup between her legs while driving.

George Will: Clamped up between her legs, drove down the street, spilled it, burned herself, sued McDonald's and collected.

Woman 2: Stella has received letters saying stuff like . . .

Ms. Liebeck: Oh, that I was driving down the road, I had no business driving down the road with the coffee between my legs and all that stuff. See it's just plain ignorant.

Daughter: My mother was made the villain in this story. It's like bullying. It feels like bullying.

Woman 3: It's not like the McDonald's person leaned over the car and poured it. It was an accident.

Attorney: 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?

Jay Leno: Now she claims she broke her nose on the sneeze guard of the sizzler bending over looking at the chick peas, so . . .

Comedian 1: Oh, my coffee was too hot. It's coffee!

Male Reporter 1: The lawsuit also got a lot of play on talk radio.

Mike Rosen: It was a very hot issue for a long time. It's probably one of the most sensational high profile tort cases of the last 20 years. So, when tort reform comes up most people say, "oh, you sure, the McDonald's case."

Male Reporter 1: 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.

Rep. Kasich: The lady goes through a fast food restaurant, puts coffee in her lap, burns her legs and sues and gets a big settlement. That in it of itself is enough to tell you why we need to have tort reform.

Announcer 1: She spilled hot coffee on her lap while sitting her car and claimed it was too hot.

Announcer 2: Every day we hear about another outrageous lawsuit.

Male Reporter 1: Stella's portrayal as a scheming want to 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.

Female Reporter 3: The judge reduced the award to about $650,000.

Male Reporter 1: 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 part of the cultural discourse.

Seinfield: Pardon me. Excuse us. Oh, coffee.

Kramer: Hot.

Kramer: Hot.

Kramer: We got a chance?

TV Attorney: Do we have a chance? You get me one coffee drinker on that jury, you gonna' walk out of there a rich man.

Male Reporter 1: 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 getting smaller, spill a cup of coffee to make a million dollars.

Daughter: I liked Toby Keith, but he did the American ride.

Toby Keith: It's going hit the fan.

Daughter: Do we have to keep living this over and over and over again?

Cartoon: Man, it's hot. How hot is it? It's so hot, I poured McDonald's coffee in my lap to cool off.

Male Reporter 1: What people believe are the facts of this case and how deeply held those convictions are has become useful to attorneys. The case that became an example of juries being out of control is now used to screen potential jurors.

Attorney: 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.

Male Reporter 1: Stella Liebeck died in 2004 when she was 91.

Daughter: The emotion that she went through, she just felt like people were coming at her.

Male Reporter 1: 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.

There may be small errors in this transcript.

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