Even if you have no interest in law, you’ve probably heard about the infamous “hot coffee case” from friends. Here’s what most people think happened: A woman bought a coffee from McDonald’s, spilled it on herself, and made millions of dollars. As often happens with word-of-mouth tales, the reality is a lot more complicated than the myth. “Hot Coffee,” a 2011 documentary, seeks to untangle what really happened.
Stella Liebeck is the plaintiff the world knows as “the hot coffee lady.” After ordering a coffee from a McDonald’s drive-thru, she sat in her parked car and took the lid off. With 16 percent of her body covered in burns, Stella incurred $10,000 in medical bills. She wrote a letter asking for McDonald’s to cover the cost, with no intention whatsoever to sue. When McDonald’s offered a paltry $800, Stella had no choice but to talk to a lawyer. “I was not it in for the money,” Stella says. “I was in it because I wanted them to bring the temperature down, so other people would not go through the same thing I did.”
Stella’s legal team discovered that not only was McDonald’s serving coffee at 180–190 degrees, far above the standard brew temperature, but also that over 700 people had complained about burns. Ken Wagner, Stella’s lawyer, describes McDonald’s behavior as “callous and indifferent.” The result, then, was far from a rip-off. It was the logical conclusion of the legal process, decided by a jury of regular citizens.
So, if that’s what really happened, then why did so many people come away thinking of Stella as an old lady eager to sue? “Hot Coffee” suggests a number of reasons. First, the media jumped on the story immediately and distorted public perception. Second, that’s exactly what McDonald’s wanted. Think about it: if they can portray regular people as all too willing to file a frivolous lawsuit, they protect themselves from further cases.
If you’ve ever heard of this famous case and wanted to know the truth, “Hot Coffee” will prove to be an enlightening and exciting documentary.
Want to hear more interesting legal stories like this one? Join the Emery Advisor Newsletter. This story is found in the December 2017 edition.