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Spilling the (Coffee) Beans

McDonald's golden arches catch sunlight.

Darren McCollester/Newsmakers/Getty Images

A list of outrageous lawsuits would be incomplete without the case of Stella Liebeck, an Albuquerque, N.M., woman who spilled a cup of McDonald's coffee on her lap while sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car. As a result, the 79-year-old suffered third degree burns on her groin, inner thighs and buttocks and spent seven days in the hospital. When she contacted McDonald's about compensating her for the medical bills, the restaurant chain took her to court. After a weeklong trial, the jury awarded Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages, which a court later reduced to $480,000. Both parties appealed, and they eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

While the ruling provoked outrage among many Americans, others saw her as a victim. The 2011 documentary "Hot Coffee" promotes the latter viewpoint, noting the alleged indifference McDonald's executives displayed to the fact that their coffee caused burns, as well as the public's misconceptions that emerged from the proceedings -- namely, the belief that Liebeck was driving and the car was moving.

Love the verdict or hate it, there's little question that Liebeck's lawsuit resulted in one of the most famous cases of recent decades. It became the butt of many jokes for late-night comedians and was even parodied in a 1995 episode of the popular television show "Seinfeld." The case also inspired the creation of the Stella Awards, which highlight particularly "wild, outrageous, or ridiculous lawsuits."

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