Misinformation abounds in public’s collective perception of the Stella Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants hot coffee case, legal experts say, and the new documentary “Hot Coffee,” a feature-length film by Susan Saladoff, seeks to dispel many of these myths. Public relations campaigns promoting tort reform frequently cite the case as an example of the type of frivolous lawsuit possible in the American legal system, but many facts of the case are not commonly known and are often deliberately misrepresented, either as a deliberate tactic in the ongoing battle of plaintiff’s rights versus the big corporate financed campaigns supporting tort reform legislation, or as a source of humor for stand up comedians and late night talk show hosts.
According to the documentary, Stella Liebeck — at the time a 79 year old resident of Albuquerque, New Mexico who was employed at a full time job and showed no signs of lost dexterity or hand-eye coordination prior to the incident according to friends and loved ones — sustained burn injuries requiring eight days of hospitalization after McDonald’s coffee – heated, as per the specifications outlined in the restaurant chain’s employee manual, to a temperature exceeding 180 degrees Fahrenheit – spilled out onto her thighs, buttocks, and groin areas. She was parked and sitting in the passenger’s seat holding the coffee cup between her knees (not driving and holding the cup close to her crotch area, as is commonly believed) at the time of the incident. The injuries, the subject of many jokes at Liebeck’s expense, required extensive skin graft treatments.
According to Liebeck’s surgeon, when liquid exceeding 180 degrees Fahrenheit in temperature comes in contact with human skin, first, second and third degree and full thickness burns can result. Leibeck suffered third degree burns across 6 percent of her body. The new documentary features extensive photographic evidence of these injuries, which were downplayed in a variety of mass media satires and parodies.
Between February of 1983 and March of 1992, McDonald’s received more than 700 consumer complaints reporting similar incidents. A representative of the restaurant’s quality assurance department, when asked about these 700 burn reports, commented that he was surprised the number wasn’t higher. Liebeck decided to file a lawsuit only after she sent McDonald’s a letter asking them to pay for her medical expenses, which totaled approximately $10,000, and she received a counter offer of $800.
In the civil suit that followed, a jury awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages and $160,000 in compensatory damages, but Judge Robert H. Scott – who ruled that the incident was the result of the fast food establishment’s “willful, wanton, and reckless behavior” reduced the punitive damages award to $480,000.