Stella Liebeck

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Stella Liebeck (born December 14, 1912 ; † August 4, 2004 ) was an American woman from New Mexico , who became famous through a lawsuit against the fast food chain McDonald’s , in which she received 160,000  US dollars in damages for pain and suffering and 480,000 US dollars in punitive damages Awarded after being third-degree scalded from spilled coffee on February 27, 1992had suffered. Her lawyers were able to prove in the process that McDonald's knowingly brewed the coffee at such high temperatures, even though other guests had been burned by hot coffee beforehand.

Liebeck vs. MC Donalds

The incident

Liebeck was the passenger in her grandson's parked car when she spilled all of the coffee when removing the plastic lid from the foam polystyrene cup . As she held the mug between her knees, the coffee flowed down her legs and came into contact with the skin for a long time as it was soaked up by the sweatpants .

Liebeck suffered third-degree scalds on between 6% and 16% of her body surface and spent eight days in the hospital, where a skin graft was also performed. The requested US $ 20,000 as reimbursement for treatment costs and other damages were refused by McDonald's and offered $ 800. Liebeck tried twice to reach an out-of-court settlement with the group before the lawsuit came.

The process

McDonald's sold the coffee at a temperature of 85 ° C, which is apparently considerably hotter than other fast food chains. It found that between 1982 and 1992 over 700 burn-related claims for coffee that were too hot had been made; McDonald's had also been asked by a burn clinic to lower the temperature of its coffee. However, it should be taken into account that, as a lawyer from McDonald's has determined for the process, so that one injury came to 24 million cups of coffee sold. Witnesses testified that despite the incidents, McDonald's had no intention of lowering the temperature of the coffee. The New Mexico District Court awarded Stella Liebeck US $ 200,000 in damages in the first instance (reduced to US $ 160,000 due to 20 percent contributory negligence) and US $ 2.7 million in punitive damages . The jury initially set the amount of compensation at the profit of two days, which McDonalds achieved just from selling coffee. This information was initially not known in the press. In the second instance, punitive damages were reduced to $ 480,000 by the New Mexico Court of Appeals . Subsequently, both parties agreed on a settlement , the amount of which is unknown.


The process was often presented to the public in such abbreviated form that the combination of “spilled coffee” and the first-instance compensation amount totaling almost three million US dollars (which had been drastically reduced by the subsequent instance) gave the wrong impression of greedy money-making as well as the ridiculous disproportionate nature of US case law. In Germany, incorrect representations have been distributed by several national newspapers and have thus drawn a distorted picture of the case that has had a lasting impact on local ideas about the American judiciary. In the USA, the humorist and author Randy Cassingham published a selection of spectacular claims for damages in the book "The True Stella Awards" (English for: The True Stella Awards ). In addition, in civil litigation in the USA there is basically no reimbursement of costs from the loser to the winner of the litigation , so that, especially in litigation involving several instances, the winner often has to bear astronomical procedural costs himself. Since lawyers' fees in the USA are not billed according to the amount in dispute, but rather according to the amount of time spent, the compensation actually achieved is often dramatically reduced. The case is dealt with in the 2011 documentary Hot Coffee , which deals with frivoulous claims (unjustified claims for damages ).

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. The information on this varies, cf. Georg Wenglorz, Patrick S. Ryan: The cat in the microwave? Law of the International Economy, Volume 8 (2003), p. 602 as well as the report by Democracy Now!
  2. a b The truth behind the 'hot coffee' lawsuit . Daily Mail, Oct 21, 2013
  3. About Crazy processes. The little wailers . Spiegel online, September 20, 2011. More are cited in: Georg Wenglorz, Patrick S. Ryan: The cat in the microwave? Law of the International Economy, Volume 8 (2003) pp. 601–602.
  4. Crazy Processes. The little wailers . Spiegel online, September 20, 2011