The joke about the woman who sued McDonald’s after spilling hot coffee in her lap has become a cultural lightening rod, mocked in sitcoms and used to argue in favor of reforming the law that guides civil lawsuits. In fact, the coffee was served 30 degrees higher than coffee made at home. When it spilled between 79-year-old Stella Liebeck’s legs and pooled in her seat, she went into shock. She was burned over 16% of her body, 6% of the burns were 3rd degree. She spent a week in the hospital and had to have skin grafts. When she asked McDonald’s to pay her hospital bills, they refused. Later it came out that the restaurant had gotten many complaints about the temperature of their coffee.
This New York Times video reviews the case, described as the “most widely misunderstood story in America.” From a sociological perspective, it’s a great example of how stories can bounce around in the media echo chamber, constrained by the need for sound bites, and become a cultural touchstone.Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and Gender, a textbook. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.