The True Story of the McDonald’s Coffee Case

How twelve everyday Americans decided Stella Liebeck’s case was not a joke. 79 year old Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was in the passenger seat of her grandson’s stopped car when she was severely burned by spilled McDonald’s coffee. Stella suffered 3rd-degree burns over 6% of her body, including her inner thighs, genitals, and buttocks. She was hospitalized for eight days, undergoing skin grafts.

Stella, a Republican who had never filed a lawsuit in her life, didn’t want to go to court. She offered to settle with McDonald’s for the cost of her medical expenses, but the company refused – even after a mediator suggested they should settle. Once in court, it was revealed that McDonald’s deliberately kept its coffee 20 degrees hotter than industry standards and was aware from 700 prior incidents that this practice could result in severe burns. The company decided not to reduce its temperature and not to warn its customers of any risk.

In the end, McDonald’s behavior outraged jury members who were skeptical of the case. Even the judge, who reduced the jury verdict by more than 80% – called McDonald’s conduct reckless, callous and willful.

Stella Liebeck’s case is a prime example of why cases are tried in a courtroom and not newspaper headlines. Yet cases like Stella’s are repeatedly misused by Members of Congress as excuses to interfere with the courts. In fact, almost 20 bills are pending that would restrict ordinary Americans’ access to the courthouse and the right to trial by jury. Members of Congress should not use one-sided half truths to limit people’s rights.

Imaginary Cases & Urban Legends: The Stella Awards Debunked

The “Stella Awards” is a collection of urban legends and fake legal cases designed to perpetuate the myth that there is a ‘lawsuit crisis’ in America. Advocates of limited legal rights have been circulating these make-believe cases for years, using fake examples to undermine public confidence in our legal system.

Searches for news stories or the actual legal cases have turned up nothing. Even Stella Award the internet stories are fabricated. Among the imaginary cases:

  • A woman who supposedly sued a furniture store after tripping over her own son.   No such case or plaintiff exists.
  • A man who, assuming the vehicle would drive itself, sued Winnebago after setting the cruise control at 70 mph, left his seat and went to the galley to make a cup of coffee, and then was surprised when it crashed. Neither the incident, nor any lawsuit exists.
  • A woman who sued a restaurant after she threw a drink on her boyfriend and slipped on the floor. Again there is no record of any such lawsuit.
  • A woman sued a nightclub after falling through a bathroom window and knocking out her teeth while trying to sneak in to the club without paying a cover charge. Neither the case nor the plaintiff is real.
  • Seven more phony cases are listed in a 2002 version of the “Stella Award” email.

While phony emails like the “Stella” chain letter are a common problem on the Internet and even in mainstream newspaper articles, they all share one characteristic–no citation to a source.

Urban myths like the “Stella Awards” aren’t just cute or harmless jabs at trial lawyers and our legal system. They clearly are part of a massive disinformation campaign designed to undermine Americans’ confidence in our legal system and to benefit powerful corporate interests at the expense of average people harmed by corporate wrongdoing and indifference.

What Can You Do

  • Write back to whoever forwards you a questionable email
  • Voice your skepticism
  • Debunk the myth

In your letter, you can debunk the myth or ask the sender for more details, especially if no case names or citations are mentioned. Most often these details cannot be provided because they do not exist.