Stella Liebeck: Hot Coffee and Cold Truth

On the morning of Feb. 27, 1992, Albuquerque, New Mexico, resident Stella Liebeck was burned when she spilled a cup of McDonald's coffee on her lap. What happened next would turn her into an urban legend.

Liebeck sued McDonald's and two years later was awarded $2.9 million in damages by a New Mexico jury. The story of the lawsuit and its verdict went viral in 1994, turning up around the world in newspapers, television news, and late night talk shows. The story kept changing, and before long the facts were largely forgotten as her case became the stuff of legend.

Liebeck died Aug. 5, 2004, 10 years ago this week, her legacy still tied up with the case that made her a cause célèbre for tort reform. In the decade since her death, the facts of her story remain largely misunderstood.

Her story, however, has made news again in recent years. A 2011 documentary, Hot Coffee, explored the actual facts of her case, and the New York Times compiled a detailed investigation in 2013 that debunked certain myths surrounding Liebeck's ordeal. She sustained burns to 16 percent of her body, spent one week in the hospital, and was hit with $10,000 in medical bills. The coffee she spilled was served between 180 and 190 degrees, about 30 degrees hotter than most home coffee machines. At that temperature, liquid causes third-degree burns within 15 seconds.

In the end, Liebeck settled her case for around $500,000, far less than the jury award. She claimed that she was not after money, but rather sought to change McDonald's policy regarding coffee temperature.

McDonald's now serves its coffee 10 degrees cooler.