From The New York Times:
More than 20 years ago, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck ordered coffee at a McDonald’s drive-through in Albuquerque, N.M. She spilled the coffee, was burned, and one year later, sued McDonald’s. The jury awarded her $2.9 million. Her story became a media sensation and fodder for talk-show hosts, late-night comedians, sitcom writers and even political pundits…
The case was legendary, and the lesson we learned from it was something like this: A clumsy woman who spilled coffee on herself was able to extract millions from McDonald's with the help of a crafty lawyer. It was a rip-off. Even people who never ate at McDonald's might have felt a little sorry for the people laboring under the Golden Arches.
In one of its often superb video Retro Reports, the Times looks back at this case and finds that all was not as it seemed. The facts of the case conflict sharply with what we think we remember–which turns out to be mostly a kind of urban legend.
First of all, Stella Liebeck, who was then 79 years old, did not get millions from McDonald's; the final settlement was $500,000. That's not a bad piece of change, but how many of us knew that she received less than one-fifth of the millions we thought she received?
A second misconception, and a far more important one, concerned the nature of her injury. We've all spilled coffee and burned our fingers. It hurts, sometimes for days before the redness disappears and the pain subsides. That is not what happened to Liebeck. Her skin wasn't red–her inner and outer thighs were blackened like a piece of Cajun fish, and she needed skin grafts to recover, as you can see in the graphic images in the video.
How many other things, you might ask, have we remembered so badly?
This is a wonderful corrective, and a reminder that things we are sure of can be wrong.