The Truth About Stella Liebeck

| Wed Jul. 27, 2011 12:23 PM EDT

I've long been pissed off over the case of Stella Liebeck. You remember her, right? The woman who spilled some McDonald's coffee on herself while carelessly careening down the highway and then scored a million-dollar jackpot when her high-priced lawyer convinced a credulous jury to stick it to a deep-pocketed corporation.

Except, not quite. In fact, Liebeck's burns were extremely serious, she wasn't the first person this happened to, and when people learn the facts of the case and view the actual injuries they almost always change their minds about it. Scott Lemieux summarizes in a review of a new HBO film, Hot Coffee:

Saladoff’s film lays out the real story in lucid detail, and no matter how many times the suit was used in Jay Leno monologues there was nothing funny about it. Liebeck was not careless, but spilled the coffee when she, as a passenger in a parked car, took the lid off the cup. The spill did not cause a trivial injury, but severe burns that required multiple operations and skin grafts to treat. McDonald’s, which served its coffee at 180 degrees, had received more than 700 complaints from customers, constituting a clear warning, but it nonetheless required its franchises to serve it at that temperature without warning customers.

Nor was Liebeck greedy or especially litigious. Her initial complaint requested only about $20,000 to cover her medical bills and other related expenses, and she took McDonald’s to court only after the corporation offered a paltry $800 settlement. The headline-generating $2.7 million Liebeck was awarded in punitive damages (selected because it approximated two days worth of the revenues McDonald’s makes by selling coffee) was reduced on appeal to less than $500,000. (The case was later settled for an undisclosed amount.) The Liebeck suit was a thoughtful attempt to seek appropriate redress for a serious harm, not about a clumsy woman trying to wring millions from an innocent corporation.

I don't get HBO, but I guess one of these days I'm going to have to break down and do it. This is good stuff, and it's good to see that it's going to find a wider audience.

UPDATE: More about the making of the film here from our own Stephanie Mencimer, author of the wonderful Blocking the Courthouse Door and one of the people featured in the film. My review of her book is here.