It is at once the most ridiculed and most misunderstood lawsuit in American history.
Most people say they know some of the facts: An old lady from New Mexico who spilled McDonald’s coffee on herself while driving successfully sued the company for a million bucks by claiming their coffee was too hot.
But most people don’t know any of the facts.
Then-79-year-old Stella Liebeck was sitting inside a park car when the spill occurred. She suffered horrific third-degree burns that required skin grafts to repair. Liebeck only sued McDonald’s to cover the cost of her medical bills after company threw an insulting $800 worth of hush money at her. It was the jury who decided to award Liebeck $2.9 million in punitive damages after her attorney demonstrated a willful disregard on McDonald’s part for the scores who have been similarly scorched by their way-too-hot 190-degree coffee over the previous decade.
Nonetheless, Liebeck only ended up with $500,000 after all was said and done.
The facts have always been out there, but thanks to powerful McDonald’s PR and a complacent and sensationalist media, they’ve been cast aside in favor of a more corporate-friendly call for tort reform.
In its latest installment, The New York Times’ Retro Report looks back at Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, and examines how the facts got lost, misreported, or, in some cases, distorted outright.
It’s a vital documentary short not just for its own sake, but for the sake of realizing how little we actually know about the things we say we do.
Update 3:26 p.m.: I linked to it above, but before it becomes the only comment, please make sure to watch Hot Coffee.
It’s a 2011 documentary feature by Susan Saladoff that takes a more expansive look at Liebeck within the context of an ongoing corporate push for tort reform that marginalizes the legitimate complaints of consumers.