How the Court of Public Opinion Shifted on the Infamous McDonald’s Coffee Lawsuit

Derided for years as a comedic (at best) example of a frivolous lawsuit, the story of Stella Liebeck’s legal battle with the McDonald’s fast food chain has been the subject of a critical reappraisal.

The 1994 case, Liebeck v. McDonalds, stemmed from third-degree burns that Liebeck, two years earlier, suffered at one of the company’s Albuquerque restaurants. She was 79 years old at the time of the incident. As the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen has recounted:

Fact Check

Claim: McDonald’s coffee lawsuit was frivolous

Description: The 1994 legal case, Liebeck v. McDonalds, has often been depicted in popular culture and public opinion as a frivolous lawsuit, where Stella Liebeck sued the fast food giant for third-degree burns she suffered from a cup of their coffee.

Rating: False

Rating Explanation: Contrary to the portrayal of the lawsuit as frivolous, McDonald’s was actually aware of over 700 similar incidents between 1982-1992 from hot coffee burns. Public opinion has started to shift, acknowledging the severity of Liebeck’s injuries and McDonald’s failure to change its policy despite multiple burn claims.

She was in the passenger seat of a car driven by her grandson. Ms. Liebeck placed the cup between her legs and removed the lid to add cream and sugar when the hot coffee spilled out on her lap causing third-degree burns on her groin, inner thighs and buttocks.

After initially “offering” Liebeck $800 in compensation, McDonald’s was ordered by the jury to pay her $2.9 million instead. The judge lowered the damages to $480,000 and Liebeck went on to settle for less than that amount.

But the initial damages award became engrained in pop culture. An episode of the sitcom Seinfeld based a subplot on the incident; a book and a website devoted to “greedy opportunists [and] frivolous lawsuits” were named after Liebeck. She was also turned into the subject of newspaper cartoons:

The effort to paint Liebeck as an outlier distorted the facts that came out during the case. According to the Journal of Consumer & Commercial Law:

It was learned that McDonald’s was aware of more than 700 claims brought against it between 1982 and 1992 due to people being burned by its coffee. Some of these claims involved third-degree burns that were substantially similar to the burns suffered by Liebeck. Moreover, McDonald’s had previously spent over $500,000 in settling these prior coffee-burn claims. In spite of the knowledge of these claims and this inherent danger with its coffee, McDonald’s refused to change its corporate policy and serve its coffee at a safer temperature.

Liebeck’s case was featured as part of the 2011 documentary Hot Coffee, which covered the difficulty for consumers to hold corporations accountable in court while being accused of playing “lawsuit lotto.”

“I kept seeing in the media these distortions, not just about the McDonald’s case but about the civil justice system,” director Susan Saladoff — a personal injury attorney by trade — told Reuters following the film’s release. “‘Frivolous lawsuits,’ ‘greedy trial lawyers,’ ‘jackpot justice.’ Those words were used to play on people’s emotions. Nobody talks about frivolous defenses. I kept thinking somebody else was going to deal with it. Then finally I said, ‘Ok, it’s me.'”

Since then, Liebeck’s battle with McDonald’s has been relitigated not in the legal arena but within online discourse by not only media outlets and legal publications but YouTube essayists and social media users:

Liebeck died in August 2004. Ten years later, her grandson Chris Tiano was asked by KRQE-TV what he would say to her.

“You to me, grandma, you were a hero,” he replied. “You were a hero for the people. And even though the people may not see you as such I want to let you know I do, and I fully believe it and I love you so much.”

In September 2022 a Florida woman, Sherry Head, filed a $13 million lawsuit against the fast food chain, saying employees at a McDonald’s in Dothan, Alabama refused to provide her with medical assistance after she ingested coffee containing a cleaning chemical that injured her in December 2020. As KTLA-TV reported:

Head’s doctors say she has been diagnosed with scarring and narrowing of her throat, difficulty swallowing, chronic gastritis, acid reflux, and abdominal pain caused by inflammation and erosion of the stomach. She may need surgery in the future to repair the damage done to her throat and preserve her ability to swallow.

An Alabama judge ruled in February 2023 that Head’s legal team will have access to documentation they had argued had been denied to them by McDonald’s.

The case was brought up again online in September 2023, following reports of a lawsuit filed against Walt Disney Parks and Resorts following a visitor’s disastrous experience in October 2019 on a 214-foot water slide located inside Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon water park in Florida.

The coverage and social media chatter around Edward and Emma McGuinness’ suit focused on the use of the term “injurious wedgie”:

But just as in Liebeck’s case, that easy descriptor ignores the damage that Emma McGuinness allegedly sustained on the slide. As CNN summarized:

When McGuinness impacted the slide and the water at the bottom her swimsuit was forced between her legs and water was “violently forced inside her.”

She experienced severe internal pain, the suit says, and blood rushed from between her legs. She was taken by ambulance to a local hospital and was later transported to another hospital to see a specialist for repair of gynecologic injuries. Court documents say that McGuinness suffered “severe and permanent bodily injury” as well as impacts including mental anguish and lost earnings.

The Orlando Sentinel reported that theme park operators in the state have an agreement with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services allowing them to “self-report” visitor injuries in cases requiring hospitalization for at least 24 hours. However, the parks’ data is not confirmed and there is no penalty for providing inaccurate data.

According to the Sentinel, McGuinness’ injuries were not reported to state officials.

Update 10/2/2023, 8:36 p.m. PST: Updated to reflect a similar instance of an injury being downplayed; in this instance an alleged October 2019 incident that injured a woman at a Disney theme park in Florida. — ag