The Real Details of the Hot Coffee Lawsuit

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Getty Images

Any time you find yourself in an argument about frivolous lawsuits and tort reform, someone’s probably going to bring up “that woman who sued McDonald’s over the hot coffee and won four ba-jillion dollars in damages.” The popular version of the story has a little something for everyone: a stalwart national company, the apparently absurd premise that someone would object to coffee being served hot, and a cash settlement that was large enough to be memorable.

Although the particulars of the case have been repeated so often that it has begun to sound like an urban legend, there really was a “hot coffee lawsuit.” How well do people remember the facts of the case that’s often used as the epitome of out-of-control litigiousness? Let’s take a look at 1994’s Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants.

The world’s most infamous cup of coffee spilled on February 27, 1992 in Albuquerque, NM. Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old grandmother, was a passenger in her grandson’s car when they drove through at a McDonald’s, and after she received her styrofoam cup of joe her grandson pulled the car forward and parked so Liebeck could mix in her cream and sugar.

Liebeck braced the cup between her knees, but when she tried to pull off the cup’s lid, the entire cup of coffee spilled into her lap. Although subsequent developments in the courtroom turned Liebeck and her case into objects of derision, it’s worth noting that she actually suffered legitimate injuries from the accident. Liebeck’s sweatpants absorbed the hot coffee and held it next to her skin, which helped lead to third degree burns on six percent of her body. Liebeck ended up spending eight days in the hospital and undergoing skin grafts to counter the effects of the burns.

Of course, most people who use the Liebeck decision to make a point about tort reform don’t do so to minimize the severity of Liebeck’s injuries. They’re blasting the apparent greed with which liability lawyers operate. It’s also worth noting, though, Liebeck apparently didn’t hear cash registers ringing immediately after she suffered the injuries. Liebeck had rung up around $11,000 in medical bills as a result of the accident, and she initially approached McDonald’s asking for $20,000 to cover her medical bills, future medical expenses, and lost income.

In a move McDonald’s surely lived to regret, the restaurant countered with a lowball offer of $800. The restaurant apparently used the same sort of common-sense logic that most people applied to the case when they heard about it; that is, if you spill coffee into your own lap the only person liable for the accident is you.

The please-go-away offer didn’t sit too well with Liebeck and her legal counsel, and although they made several other attempts to settle the case out of court at prices as high as $300,000, McDonald’s refused to blink. With no settlement in sight, attorney Reed Morgan filed a suit against McDonald’s to ask for $100,000 in compensatory damages and more in punitive damages since McDonald’s had been grossly negligent in selling Liebeck a “defectively manufactured” product. (Yes, the logic was that overheating coffee rendered the beverage defective and dangerous.)

McDonald’s asked for a summary dismissal of Liebeck case on the grounds that she was the actual cause of her injuries since she was the one who physically spilled the coffee. The trial judge rejected the motion, though, and told Liebeck and McDonald’s to attend a mediation session in a last-ditch attempt to hammer out a settlement. The mediator advised McDonald’s to settle for $225,000. McDonald’s – you may see a pattern emerging here – again scoffed at opening its coffers. Instead, the case went before a jury.

It’s safe to say that the impaneled citizens probably weren’t expecting to hear hours of testimony about the temperature of coffee when they got their jury duty notices in the mail. That’s what they heard, though. Over the course of the trial, Liebeck’s team established that McDonald’s had a policy of serving its coffee at temperatures ranging from 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit to enhance flavor and ensure that to-go cups were still warm when they reached their destinations. (The coffee that you brew at home probably comes out at around 140 degrees, so there’s a significant difference.) Moreover, experts testified that skin can burn quickly when contacted by liquids at these temperatures.

More damning, though, was McDonald’s own testimony. The company admitted that in the decade before Liebeck’s incident, upwards of 700 customers had filed complaints about its coffee causing burns. McDonald’s argued that the 700 complaints were only one for every 24 million cups of coffee sold, though, so the danger was statistically insignificant. (Note to any aspiring trial lawyers out there: it’s probably not a good idea to bring up statistical significance when there’s a severely burned grandmother sitting in front of a jury.)

The jurors only needed four hours of deliberation to arrive at their infamous verdict. The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages but dropped this sum to $160,000 since it felt Liebeck was 20-percent at fault for her accident. The real whopper, though, were the punitive damages against McDonald’s, which the jury pegged at $2.7 million. (That number reflected roughly two days’ worth of McDonald’s coffee revenues.)

The trial judge would later reduce the punitive damages to $480,000, but the media had already sunk its teeth into the $2.9 million total the jury returned. In truth, though, we don’t know how much cash actually changed hands between Liebeck and McDonald’s. Both parties appealed the trial judge’s reduced figure for damages, and the two parties eventually reached an undisclosed out-of-court settlement before the appeals were heard.

Regardless of where you stand on the merits of Liebeck’s legal case, it’s hard to deny the sweep of the infamous “coffee case.” McDonald’s now serves its coffee in a lower temperature range, and the warnings about the dangers of hot liquids seem to grow continuously. Liebeck died in 2004 at the age of 91, three years before McDonald’s added iced coffee to its menu.

Upper Crust: The Story of Pizza Hut's Forgotten Priazzo Pizza

Pizza Hut tried to up their game in 1985 with a high-rise "Italian pie."
Pizza Hut tried to up their game in 1985 with a high-rise "Italian pie."
Presley Ann, Getty Images for Pizza Hut

When Pizza Hut rolled out its newest menu item in the summer of 1985 under the nonexistent Italian word Priazzo, the chain was quick to correct anyone who declared it a new variety of pizza.

The Priazzo was unlike any pizza Americans had ever come across. With two layers of dough, pepperoni, mushroom, onions, spinach, ham, bacon, tomatoes, and one full pound of cheese, Pizza Hut called it a pie; others called it a strange alchemy of pizza, quiche, and lasagna. PepsiCo, which owned the franchise, hoped it would boost revenue by 10 percent.

It did. For a while. But there were problems inherent in a pizza chain that claimed to be serving something other than pizza.

The Priazzo, which spent two years in development, followed the successful 1983 rollout of Pizza Hut's Personal Pan Pizza. That menu item, which was intended to appeal to customers who wanted just a single portion on their lunch break, was a tremendous hit, increasing the company's lunchtime business by 70 percent. With the Priazzo, however, the restaurant went in the opposite direction—super-sizing a dinner option and limiting its availability to after 4 p.m. on weekdays and all day on weekends.

Though the name was nonsensical—it was the invention of Charles Brymer, a marketing consultant who had also named the Pontiac Fiero—Pizza Hut used names of Italian cities for the three variations. There was the Roma, which had a mix of meat (pepperoni, Italian sausage, and pork) along with mozzarella and the very non-Italian cheddar cheese, plus onions and mushrooms; the Milano had all the meat of the Roma plus beef and bacon, mozzarella and cheddar on top, but no mushrooms or onions; and the gut-busting Florentine, which featured spinach, ham, and five different kinds of cheese, including ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan, romano, and cheddar. (A fourth pie, the vegetarian Napoli, was added later.)

All the pies were stuffed with ingredients and then had a layer of dough with tomato sauce and cheese baked on top. A small Priazzo sold for about $8.05, a medium was $10.95, and a large ran around $13.75. For that you got the full Priazzo experience and nothing extra, as customers were not allowed to change or substitute toppings—or, more accurately, stuffing—as the surplus of ingredients was the entire point of the Priazzo. Diners could, however, ask that ingredients be subtracted.

“Most Italian homes have a version of their own,” Arthur Gunther, Pizza Hut's president at the time, told the Chicago Tribune of the idea behind the Priazzo in 1985. “We looked for those that we felt would have application in the United States.” In Italy, such double-crusted pies are known as pizza rusticha, though putting sauce and cheese over the top crust was unique to the Priazzo.

On the strength of a $15 million marketing campaign and a commercial shot in Italy, and accompanied by music from famed Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini, the Priazzo made a splashy debut in June 1985, right around the same time that Pizza Hut and other chains were moving into home delivery. While it was not exactly a deep dish pizza, it promised something of similar gastronomic substance, and Pizza Hut hoped that would entice people who didn’t have access to table-tipping pizzas outside of Chicago.

The Priazzo gained some early devotees who enjoyed the dish's generous and layered presentation. One notable exception was Evelyne Slomon, a cooking instructor and author of 1984's The Pizza Book: Everything There Is To Know About the World's Greatest Pie. She refused an offer to endorse the pizza and noted that actual Italians would rarely put so much meat in their pies. Others observed that pizza is one of the words commonly used for pie in Italian, making Pizza Hut’s insistence that their “Italian pie” was not a pizza rather grating for linguists.

Still, they fulfilled their objective. In early 1986, PepsiCo reported a 12 percent increase in Pizza Hut revenue, aided in part by the Priazzo. But its success would not last. In the fast-casual atmosphere of a pizza chain, consumers wanted their typical fare. After the initial curiosity wore off, not many customers were returning to the Priazzo for pizza nights. Anecdotally, there were also reports of employees finding the thick pies too cumbersome and time-consuming to deal with.

Whatever the case, the Priazzo was disappearing by 1991 and was last mentioned in print by Pizza Hut in 1993. The baton of pizza excess was later picked up by their stuffed crust pizza, which was introduced in 1995 and has remained a perennial favorite. That might be due in some part to the fact that Pizza Hut was content to call it what it was: a pizza.

Why Isn't Fish Considered Meat During Lent?

AlexRaths/iStock via Getty Images
AlexRaths/iStock via Getty Images

For six Fridays each spring, Catholics observing Lent skip sirloin in favor of fish sticks and swap Big Macs for Filet-O-Fish. Why?

Legend has it that centuries ago a medieval pope with connections to Europe's fishing business banned red meat on Fridays to give his buddies' industry a boost. But that story isn't true. Sunday school teachers have a more theological answer: Jesus fasted for 40 days and died on a Friday. Catholics honor both occasions by making a small sacrifice: avoiding animal flesh one day out of the week. That explanation is dandy for a homily, but it doesn't explain why only red meat and poultry are targeted and seafood is fine.

For centuries, the reason evolved with the fast. In the beginning, some worshippers only ate bread. But by the Middle Ages, they were avoiding meat, eggs, and dairy. By the 13th century, the meat-fish divide was firmly established—and Saint Thomas Aquinas gave a lovely answer explaining why: sex, simplicity, and farts.

In Part II of his Summa Theologica, Aquinas wrote:

"Fasting was instituted by the Church in order to bridle the concupiscences of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connection with food and sex. Wherefore the Church forbade those who fast to partake of those foods which both afford most pleasure to the palate, and besides are a very great incentive to lust. Such are the flesh of animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air and their products."

Put differently, Aquinas thought fellow Catholics should abstain from eating land-locked animals because they were too darn tasty. Lent was a time for simplicity, and he suggested that everyone tone it down. It makes sense. In the 1200s, meat was a luxury. Eating something as decadent as beef was no way to celebrate a holiday centered on modesty. But Aquinas had another reason, too: He believed meat made you horny.

"For, since such like animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust. Hence the Church has bidden those who fast to abstain especially from these foods."

There you have it. You can now blame those impure thoughts on a beef patty. (Aquinas might have had it backwards though. According to the American Dietetic Association, red meat doesn't boost "seminal matter." Men trying to increase their sperm count are generally advised to cut back on meat. However, red meat does improve testosterone levels, so it's give-and-take.)

Aquinas gave a third reason to avoid meat: it won't give you gas. "Those who fast," Aquinas wrote, "are forbidden the use of flesh meat rather than of wine or vegetables, which are flatulent foods." Aquinas argued that "flatulent foods" gave your "vital spirit" a quick pick-me-up. Meat, on the other hand, boosts the body's long-lasting, lustful humors—a religious no-no.

But why isn't fish considered meat?

The reason is foggy. Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, for one, has been used to justify fasting rules. Paul wrote, " … There is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fish, and another of birds" (15:39). That distinction was possibly taken from Judaism's own dietary restrictions, which separates fleishig (which includes land-locked mammals and fowl) from pareve (which includes fish). Neither the Torah, Talmud, or New Testament clearly explains the rationale behind the divide.

It's arbitrary, anyway. In the 17th century, the Bishop of Quebec ruled that beavers were fish. In Latin America, it's OK to eat capybara, as the largest living rodent is apparently also a fish on Lenten Fridays. Churchgoers around Detroit can guiltlessly munch on muskrat every Friday. And in 2010, the Archbishop of New Orleans gave alligator the thumbs up when he declared, “Alligator is considered in the fish family."

Thanks to King Henry VIII and Martin Luther, Protestants don't have to worry about their diet. When Henry ruled, fish was one of England's most popular dishes. But when the Church refused to grant the King a divorce, he broke from the Church. Consuming fish became a pro-Catholic political statement. Anglicans and the King's sympathizers made it a point to eat meat on Fridays. Around that same time, Martin Luther declared that fasting was up to the individual, not the Church. Those attitudes hurt England's fishing industry so much that, in 1547, Henry's son King Edward VI—who was just 10 at the time—tried to reinstate the fast to improve the country's fishing economy. Some Anglicans picked the practice back up, but Protestants—who were strongest in Continental Europe—didn't need to take the bait.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This story was updated in 2020.

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