What a lot of people get wrong about the infamous 1994 McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit

German Lopez
Revisiting the 1994 McDonald's hot coffee case

It's treated as a classic example of judicial overreach and greed: A woman, driving in her car while holding McDonald's coffee between her legs, spills some of the coffee on herself. Inflicted with some minor burns, she sues McDonald's, as if she shouldn't have known that coffee is hot and driving with it in your hand or legs is dangerous. And then she ultimately wins millions of dollars from the fast food chain — becoming rich due to a dumb mistake that was all on her.

Only this is all wrong.

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In a new segment of Adam Ruins Everything, host Adam Conover explains that basically everything people think they know about the McDonald's hot coffee lawsuit is false. He walks through some of the actual details of the case:

  • Stella Liebeck was a 79-year-old woman in Albuquerque, New Mexico, whose grandson drove her to McDonald's in 1992. She was in a parked car when the coffee spilled.
  • Liebeck acknowledged that the spill was her fault. What she took issue with was that the coffee was so ridiculously hot — at up to 190 degrees Fahrenheit, near boiling point — that it caused third-degree burns on her legs and genitals, nearly killing her and requiring extensive surgery to treat.
  • McDonald's apparently knew that this was unsafe. In the decade before Liebeck's spill, McDonald's had received 700 reports of people burning themselves. McDonald's admitted that its coffee was a hazard at such high temperatures. But it continued the practice, enforced by official McDonald's policy, of heating up its coffee to near-boiling point. (McDonald's claimed customers wanted the coffee this hot.)
  • Liebeck didn't want to go to court. She just wanted McDonald's to pay her medical expenses, estimated at $20,000. McDonald's only offered $800, leading her to file a lawsuit in 1994.
  • After hearing the evidence, the jury concluded that McDonald's handling of its coffee was so irresponsible that Liebeck should get much more than $20,000, suggesting she get nearly $2.9 million to send the company a message. Liebeck settled for less than $600,000. And McDonald's began changing how it heats up its coffee.

As Conover put it, "This was an incredibly rare case where a working-class victim actually beat a huge team of corporate lawyers and made the world a better place."

So how did the public's view of this case get so warped? According to Conover, lawyers spent years running a disinformation campaign, which much of the media bought into, holding up the McDonald's coffee lawsuit as an example of a supposed epidemic of frivolous lawsuits.

"The last several decades, large corporations afraid of being sued for making unsafe products created front groups like Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse to turn public opinion against lawsuits," University of Washington professor Michael McCann told Conover. But "the best social science evidence shows that the number of personal injury lawsuits in recent decades has declined, and the median payout is only $55,000."

The lesson here: There are many problems with our justice system, from vast racial disparities to a bail system that excessively punishes the poor. But the McDonald's hot coffee case isn't one of those problems.