Those ‘Dumb’ Lawsuits You’ve Heard About Were More Serious Than You Think

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You know the story of the woman who sued McDonald’s because her coffee was too hot, right?

In the popular version of the story, this regular McDonald’s customer should have known full well how hot coffee could get and made the mistake of putting her cup of coffee between her legs instead of putting it in the cupholder. When she was driving and the coffee spilled out a bit onto her legs, it hurt because of how hot it was. In a fury that her coffee was hot, she swerved around and called her lawyer, determined to make some money off of McDonald’s.

Due to this ridiculous and frivolous lawsuit, McDonald’s now has to put a warning on their coffee cups to tell you that the coffee is hot. But is that the real story?

That’s Not How It Happened

Here’s the thing: that’s not how this lawsuit happened. In 1992, Stella Liebeck, who was 79 at the time, purchased a cup of coffee in a McDonald’s drive-through. Liebeck was not driving the car when the coffee spilled, and, in fact, she was in the passenger seat. When she took the lid off of the coffee to add cream and sugar, it spilled out into her lap and caused her serious burns.

The coffee in the cup wasn’t just hot–it was nearly boiling. The temperature McDonald’s served coffee at in the early 90s was excessive and could cause severe burns to skin after only a few seconds of prolonged contact. Liebeck was so badly injured by her third-degree burns that she required skin grafts.

In the end, Liebeck was awarded some monetary damages from McDonald’s, but the judge reduced the payout by roughly eighty percent after the jury mandated that she be paid two days’ worth of coffee sales from the chain restaurant.

The Perception of Frivolous Lawsuits

The next time you hear about a frivolous lawsuit where someone sues a company for what seems to be their own mistake, consider doing a bit of research. Is the lawsuit actually a pointless cash grab by a spiteful person, or is the company spinning the case that way to make themselves look better? Many of those “dumb” and “frivolous” lawsuits you’ve heard about in corporate history were likely much more serious in nature than you realized.