Here’s What Really Happened With That Infamous McDonald’s ‘Hot Coffee Lawsuit’

“Careful — that coffee is hot!”

Who hasn’t sarcastically said that to a friend when ordering coffee? It’s impossible to read the warning on your coffee to-go cup and not think of the infamous lawsuit. It’s true there have been plenty of frivolous lawsuits throughout history, but you may be shocked to find this wasn’t one of them.

When it comes to the infamous case of the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit, there’s more to the story than you probably know — including what the plaintiff really wanted (page 4).

The plaintiff was a grandmother

Woman mcdonald's coffee lawsuit
She wasn’t what people imagine today. | The New York Times via YouTube

Some people picture a money-grabbing plaintiff who’d sue anyone to make a buck. But in reality, the person behind the “hot coffee lawsuit” was 79-year-old Stella Liebeck. She was in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car at the time of the 1992 incident.

Next: It could have happened to anyone.

Spilling coffee can happen to anyone

Cup of tea or coffee spilling over a keyboard
It can happen at any time. | wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images

On that fateful day, Liebeck ordered a coffee from the McDonald’s drive-thru and asked her grandson to pull forward out of the drive-thru lane. She then proceeded to remove the lid from her Styrofoam cup to add cream and sugar. The coffee spilled onto her lap as she held it between her legs, even though the car wasn’t moving.

Next: Her injuries were extensive.

Her burns were severe

Ambulance at Emergency Room entrance
She received third-degree burns and spent eight days in the hospital. | rcyoung/iStock/Getty Images

The burns Liebeck experienced were more than just a little uncomfortable. As her doctor confirmed, she endured third-degree burns (the worst you can get) in her lap and had to be hospitalized for eight days. During that time, she received skin grafts and other painful procedures. Plus, she was left with permanent scarring.

Next: This is the most surprising aspect of the case.

McDonald’s refused to settle

McDonald's yellow and red drive-thru logo
She only wanted to get her hospital bills paid. | TonyBaggett/iStock/Getty Images

This tidbit is the most telling of all: At first, Liebeck offered to settle for $20,000, hoping only to recoup the cost of her hospital stay that Medicare didn’t cover. McDonald’s refused her initial offer, which is why the case went to court and made history.

Next: She wasn’t the first to get burned.

Hundreds of people have been burned

Mcdonald's coffee
There were 700 people who had been burned. | Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Think Stella Liebeck is the only person who’s been burned? Think again. McDonald’s had faced claims from more than 700 people prior to 1992, who all claimed they were burned by coffee that was served too hot.

Next: McDonald’s did it on purpose.

McDonald’s made its coffee too hot on purpose

Hot coffee warning
The company claims it makes the coffee taste better. | The New York Times via YouTube

During the trial, it was revealed that McDonald’s kept its coffee temperature between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit, even though any drink served at temperatures over 140 degrees Fahrenheit could cause serious burns. The company claimed to do that because it “made the coffee taste better.”

Next: She never asked for this one thing.

The jury gave her millions she didn’t ask for

Millions jury compensation
The jury initially gave her millions. | The New York Times via YouTube

In the end, the jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages, even though she didn’t ask for it. The punitive damages amount was reduced to $480,000, which McDonald’s appealed. And eventually the matter was settled for an undisclosed amount.

Next: Here’s why everyone hated her.

Her reputation suffered

Woman coffee lawsuit
Her reputation was sent into tail spin. | The New York Times via YouTube

From comedians to news anchors, it seems like everyone had a sarcastic comment about the “hot coffee case.” But most of what they were saying was untrue.

As Liebeck’s daughter-in-law Barbara told Reader’s Digest: “I’ve heard people say she was asking for $30 million or something equally ridiculous. Basically, Stella told McDonald’s, ‘I want you to cover what Medicare doesn’t cover, and I want you to get a better lid on that coffee because I don’t want this to happen to another person.’ That was what she was asking for.”

Next: The case is just misunderstood.

It wasn’t a frivolous case

Court case mcdonald's coffee box
McDonald’s now makes the coffee slightly cooler. | The New York Times via YouTube

In the end, McDonald’s could have avoided the PR nightmare and saved a lot of money if it would have settled the suit in the first place. Liebeck won the case because McDonald’s intentionally served a dangerous product despite the risks. Unfortunately, she never regained her full strength and died in 2004 at age 91.

McDonald’s now sells its coffee 10 degrees cooler than it used to.

Read more: These Are the Biggest Fast Food Failures McDonald’s Ever Made

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