By Dean Staley
Updated: Tuesday, March 4, 2014
ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – It has been more than 20 years since 79-year-old Stella Liebeck bought an 8-ounce cup of coffee at the drive-through of the Albuquerque McDonald’s at Gibson and San Mateo.
She spilled the coffee on herself, sued McDonald’s and won a $2.9 million award.
In the years since, the story spread across the country and around the world. Over time the details faded, until all anyone remembers was that a woman spilled coffee on herself, sued and made millions. It became an urban legend and Liebeck became the poster child for frivolous lawsuits.
The story is now part of our popular culture, including references on the TV shows “Seinfeld,” “Futurama” and country singer Toby Kieth’s music video “American Ride.” Liebeck’s family says being a punch line is a distinction Stella, who died in 2004, never wanted and didn’t deserve.
“Everybody says well, ‘she’s a gold digger, she was just suing McDonald’s because she wants a lot of money,’ and really her only point was she didn’t want it to happen to anybody else,” her grandson, Chris Tiano, said.
He was with her the day of the accident, driving the car while Stella sat in the passenger seat of the Ford Probe. He parked in the McDonald’s parking lot so Liebeck could add cream to her coffee. She had the cup between her legs when she pulled off the top, and the coffee soaked her sweat pants.
“I got her out of the car, I pulled off her terry cloth sweats, had a blanket in the back of the car and wrapped it around her, thinking it’s probably just a water burn,” Tiano said.
But at the emergency room, Liebeck soon discovered she had suffered third-degree burns on some of the most sensitive areas of her body. It took more than a week in the hospital and multiple skin grafts to repair the damage.
According to her attorney, Ken Wagner, the image of a lawsuit-happy old lady is false.
“She wasn’t looking to get rich, she just wanted them to turn the temperature down so other people didn’t suffer what she suffered,” Wagner said.
In fact, before Liebeck sued, she only asked that McDonald’s check the temperature of their coffee and pay her more than $10,000 in medical bills. Only after McDonald’s offered her $800 did Liebeck sue.
At trial, it was revealed that in the preceding nine years, more than 700 people had complained of burn injuries from McDonalds’ coffee. The jury also heard testimony that McDonald’s guidelines for franchisees was to keep the coffee between 180 and 190 degrees, 30 degrees hotter than the coffee produced by a home coffee maker.
In the end, the jury awarded Liebeck $2.9 million. What most people don’t remember is that the award was later reduced by a judge to $480,000 and Liebeck eventually settled for even less.
Still, the image of a lawsuit-happy old lady getting rich from a frivolous lawsuit lingers.
“Once the media and corporate America got a hold of it, she was maligned and I think absolutely it was unjustified,” says Wagner. For Liebeck’s grandson, the pain is personal, “I’d really like people to realize this story isn’t how its been portrayed for the most part,” said Tiano. “The fact that she went up against McDonald’s to make sure something like this couldn’t happen to any of us, just tells you who my grandmother really was.”