Getting the Third Degree – February PR History

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

On February 27, 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee on herself while sitting in a car. Normally, that would not be worthy of mention, except for what happened in the months to come: Liebeck was severely burned by the hot liquid, she was awarded a tidy $2.9 million – and she was vilified as the greedy woman who cashed in on her stupidity.

Most PR pros are at least vaguely aware of this story. But few people are aware of the background. For example, Liebeck suffered second- and even third-degree burns as a result of the spill; she was hospitalized for eight days and underwent a skin graft; and she was left her partially disabled for two years.

Also noteworthy: before seeking a lawyer, Liebeck had written a letter to McDonald’s, asking for $20,000; they offered $800. And in the 10 years prior, McDonald’s had received some 700 reports of burned customers and paid more than $500,000 to settle claims.

Still, the accident was Liebeck’s own fault, and the $2.9 million she was awarded in 1994 seemed a pretty sweet payout – and the media let everyone know it. “Java jury burns McD’s for $2.9m,” said one headline; another paper called the case a “Hot McVerdict.” International media also covered the story; one German paper announced, “Millions for coffee.”

Some media didn’t report the full story, others just plain got it wrong. For example, at the time if the spill, Liebeck was sitting in the passenger’s seat of her grandson’s car, which was parked and did not have cup holders. But both NBC News and George Will stated that Liebeck had been holding the cup between her legs while driving.

From there, it only got worse. Liebeck was mocked in political cartoons and by late-night comics; the spill was parodied in an episode of Seinfeld, and a citizen created The Stella Awards, presented annually to “any wild, outrageous, or ridiculous lawsuits.” ABC News called the case, “the poster child of excessive lawsuits” – prompting the Republican party to cite the case as a prime reason to introduce the Common Sense Legal Reform Act. This, class, is what a public relations crisis looks like.

But Liebeck did not have a PR team working to get out her side of the story. As one analyst later observed, “Once everybody decides what is true about something … how do you deal with the fact that they might be wrong?” So when a trial judge later reduced the payout to $640,000, it was widely perceived as a measure of justice for McDonald’s. (The parties later settled for a confidential amount.)

The epilogue: Liebeck died in 2004, age 91. In the years following the suit, several media outlets produced quality pieces, trying to fill in the narrative. But in 2009, Toby Keith released a song with the lyrics, “Spill a cup of coffee, make a million dollars.”

Was Liebeck’s big payout justified? Was any settlement appropriate? What could she have done in response? And what could McDonald’s PR team have done to manage the situation — or perhaps even prevent it?

These questions may be worth considering while you sip your morning coffee today. But carefully, please.