"McDonald's proved themselves to be jerks and the jury didn't like that"
May 22, 2015 7:41 AM   Subscribe

Factual comics Friday: Shannon "Too Much Coffee Man" Wheeler sets the record straight on the McDonald's coffee lawsuit.
posted by MartinWisse (94 comments total) 99 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've given up trying to explain the whole story to people when they bring this up as a frivolous lawsuit.

Maybe I'll just print out copies of this to hand out as needed.
posted by Dr-Baa at 7:46 AM on May 22, 2015 [36 favorites]


man, that is a GREAT comic.

i can't count how many times i've had to explain that it wasn't "oooh coffee haz hots?" to people who joke about frivolous lawsuits.
posted by sio42 at 7:47 AM on May 22, 2015 [8 favorites]


on preview - yep Dr-Baa.

i wonder if we can get those made in those little business card size foldy-out dealies...
posted by sio42 at 7:47 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is a topic I've enjoyed arguing a lot, just because a straight recitation of the facts is so counter to the media-driven perception of the case. This and "the Twinkie Defense".

If I have hope for humanity, it's actually this: before the Internet, the popular version would have gone unchallenged because no one would have access to a trumping source of information. Nowadays though, it's perfectly legit to link Snopes or Wikipedia or a comic like this, and that causes a lot of angry rants to miscarry. Which is good.
posted by fatbird at 7:48 AM on May 22, 2015 [17 favorites]


I'd known the story for a while now too; I think it was a MeFi post that first brought my attention to how it's been misrepresented over time. But this comic is going to be a marvelous explainer for people who still don't understand how their perception of that case has been manipulated by very specific people in very intentional ways. Bless Shannon Wheeler.
posted by Strange Interlude at 7:49 AM on May 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


The documentary, "Hot Coffee" is also really great.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:52 AM on May 22, 2015 [11 favorites]


I am from Albuquerque, NM, where this actually happened, and much hay was made of it on local talk radio at the time. It wasn't until much later that I learned how fallacious the meme-version of the story I'd heard was.
posted by Sokka shot first at 7:55 AM on May 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


If I have hope for humanity, it's actually this: before the Internet, the popular version would have gone unchallenged because no one would have access to a trumping source of information. Nowadays though, it's perfectly legit to link Snopes or Wikipedia or a comic like this, and that causes a lot of angry rants to miscarry.
fatbird

But it really doesn't. There's a reason why this story persists. Only the kind of people who are already open to questioning the hot coffee story are going to link to Snopes, or be receptive to a link. Everyone else is just going to dig in to their positions and ignore the "liberal lies".

I think the idea of the Internet as this great repository of knowledge that would enlighten us all was a pipe dream of the 90s. What actually happened is that the Internet has allowed people to ensconce themselves in ever more impenetrable bubbles where nothing they don't agree with ever gets in. It's amplified all the worst tendencies of people, especially tribalism.
posted by Sangermaine at 7:55 AM on May 22, 2015 [12 favorites]


Thanks for this. Also one of my favourite arguments to have. My correct information on it came from this 1995 Tom Tomorrow This Modern World strip.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:57 AM on May 22, 2015 [14 favorites]


But I got that info from the print edition of the Detroit Metro Times in 1995.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:59 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


The other famous court case that has also been greatly distorted over time is the story surrounding the Ford Pinto (pdf link)

It feels like these are modern day myths, which people retell to impress a certain viewpoint upon the impressionable listener.
posted by xdvesper at 8:01 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


The other thing no one likes to talk about is that our "out of control tort system" is based largely on the fact that a lot people don't have any medical insurance, so the only way they can recoup costs for injuries is to bring a lawsuit. And even if they do have insurance, they still have a ton of costs from out-of-network visits, deductibles, etc, as we saw in Stella Liebeck's case. If we had a single payer system, I can guarantee you wouldn't see as many personal injury lawsuits; they wouldn't be necessary. (Despite the popular perception otherwise, awards of punitive damages are rather unusual, and more often than not, are reduced on a post-verdict motion or on appeal, or both.)
posted by holborne at 8:05 AM on May 22, 2015 [48 favorites]


It's larger than that. There are two general ways to handle disputes and damages: regulation and litigation. In places with stronger regulation, including public health care regimes, the need for litigation is obviated. You don't need to sue if you can get redress for being harmed via regulation, or if regulation prevents the harm in the first place.

Without regulation, you have to litigate disputes. This is why when libertarians describe their ideal state, they talk about lawsuits settling everything.

What the powers that be in the US have done is quite clever: they've largely successfully fought off attempts at regulation as evil tyrannical socialism, but also have managed to paint litigation as out of control and the province of greedy losers. I've heard people proudly proclaim that they'd never sue to solve a problem as if it's a badge of honor.

So we end up with people in the US not only demanding less regulation, but less litigation. So when a company does something bad, it's even harder to hold them accountable.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:10 AM on May 22, 2015 [82 favorites]


It's not hard to dig up the photos of the burns. They are NSFW. And they are horrific.
posted by entropone at 8:11 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


Telling the exact details of the case never really works because people have short attention spans, and even if they didn't it's kind of a pedantic thing to do. If someone brings this up I usually just say that the coffee was insanely hot, way hotter than from any other business, nearly boiling, and she was in the hospital for a week and needed skin grafts.
posted by vogon_poet at 8:11 AM on May 22, 2015


If someone brings this up I usually just say that the coffee was insanely hot, way hotter than from any other business, nearly boiling, and she was in the hospital for a week and needed skin grafts.

Also, they lowered the temperature of the coffee after initially saying they wouldn't! That alone makes this a success story in which future harm to others is at least mitigated AND proves that McDonald's actually was doing something wrong.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:15 AM on May 22, 2015 [15 favorites]


Oh, also, the 2.7 million is based on two days of the sales of JUST McDONALD'S COFFEE! The idea that this is a totally unreasonable amount is based on the idea that this woman shouldn't get money, not that this is a huge amount for McDonald's to have to pay.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:18 AM on May 22, 2015 [14 favorites]


Yes, take out coffee is served cooler now, thank you Stella!

My toddler son had second degree burns on his hip from a Burger King coffee spill in 1990. And that was with quick action, pulling off the sweat pants and quick cold water application. It never occurred to me then that there might have been something actually wrong with the way they were serving it.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:19 AM on May 22, 2015 [6 favorites]


The McDonald's coffee case is really popular with certain (really hateful) kinds of trolls.
Nearly all of it is ideological.
Pictures I've seen of Mrs. Lieback's injuries were up there with pictures of I've seen of atrocities committed in war - time.
I agree this cartoon is brilliant. I need a few of those business card sized fold-ups too.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:20 AM on May 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've heard people proudly proclaim that they'd never sue to solve a problem as if it's a badge of honor.

It's not a badge of honor, but man, it's really, really, REALLY a good thing to avoid. Not because it makes you a better person, but because it's very likely the worst thing, or at least the worst one or two things, you'll ever go through in your life. That's why I always shake my head at the ranting and raving about greedy plaintiffs or what have you; it's as though people think that you file a complaint and magically receive $6 million in your bank account a year later -- so easy for people to receive large judgments! Yeah, no.
posted by holborne at 8:20 AM on May 22, 2015 [7 favorites]


I end up using the actual facts in this story as an example of how the system actually worked *well*.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:21 AM on May 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


If I have hope for humanity, it's actually this: before the Internet, the popular version would have gone unchallenged because no one would have access to a trumping source of information. Nowadays though, it's perfectly legit to link Snopes or Wikipedia or a comic like this, and that causes a lot of angry rants to miscarry. Which is good.

I have found that the amount of emotional involvement people have is often a direct inverse correlation to the amount of information they have on the topic.

Telling the exact details of the case never really works because people have short attention spans, and even if they didn't it's kind of a pedantic thing to do.

J.C. Watts once said in an interview, "if you are explaining, you're losing."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:23 AM on May 22, 2015


It's not hard to dig up the photos of the burns. They are NSFW. And they are horrific.
These images resulted in one of the fastest changes of opinion I've ever experienced.
posted by NordyneDefenceDynamics at 8:26 AM on May 22, 2015 [16 favorites]


I spilled an entire freshly brewed coffee container (not unlike one of these but metal) all over my chest and stomach at my barista job years and years ago. Second degree burns, no health insurance, and my employers were sympathetic, but did nothing but send me home. I was too terrified of losing my job at the time to raise a stink--the previous employee had not latched the top properly before allowing me to raise it precariously on a medium-high ledge--but I might have well wanted to sue too if I hadn't been so young.

(The scars from my burns didn't start to fade until a couple of years ago.)
posted by Kitteh at 8:26 AM on May 22, 2015 [5 favorites]


The part where McD's lawyers said "she's old and so her body parts are worn out and therefore worth less money" is one of the most horrifying parts of the whole case.

My "favorite" part of the comic is the reproduction of all the talking heads saying completely incorrect things in order to make their points about society.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:27 AM on May 22, 2015 [14 favorites]


Shannon "Too Much Coffee Man" Wheeler sets the record straight on the McDonald's coffee lawsuit.

Eponysterical!
posted by Gelatin at 8:30 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think the idea of the Internet as this great repository of knowledge that would enlighten us all was a pipe dream of the 90s. What actually happened is that the Internet has allowed people to ensconce themselves in ever more impenetrable bubbles where nothing they don't agree with ever gets in. It's amplified all the worst tendencies of people, especially tribalism.

It's also made all these tendencies vastly easier to see as well. The bubbles may be strong, but they're also transparent.
posted by ZeusHumms at 8:30 AM on May 22, 2015 [5 favorites]


Pull quote, first comment to strip in full:
Jules Maas - May 11, 2015, 9:17 am

Thank you for this. THANK YOU. I was in a college marketing class in Las Cruces, NM shortly after this incident. Led emphatically by the professor, well over 100 students sat in an auditorium and participated in a ‘discussion’ that tore this poor woman apart under the assumption of her own negligence. Ageism and media buy-in at its best. But the worst part was when one student finally stood up and informed everyone that that lady was his grandmother and he was sitting in the car with her. And then went into the first-hand details (non-graphic) of the accident and injury. I have never again seen and been a part of so many people instantly and rightfully shamed. I should remember this example more every time I watch a news story like it. It’s so easy to judge people we don’t know and never will, and this is why we can’t let the media make up our minds for us. We only know what THEY want us to know.
posted by ZeusHumms at 8:32 AM on May 22, 2015 [69 favorites]


Sadly, upon seeing the photos, some people just claim that there's no way that hot coffee could have caused those burns.
posted by LindsayIrene at 8:32 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


I had an accident while working at McDonald's in 1997, spilled brand new coffee grinds all over my arm at 6AM. I was a kid, and the accident was my fault. However, I ended up with 2nd and 3rd degree burns. I didn't get anything out of McDonald's other than a week off. (And a semester out of gym.)
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:32 AM on May 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


This is one of those cases I find fascinating, where there are facts and then there is a narrative concocted around and perverting those facts to suit a particular ideological reality. It's not so much the bending and twisting I find fascinating but the resiliency of the narrative when exposed as essentially untrue: people simply do not care. By that time the myth serves a function that supersedes accuracy and integrity. See also, History.
posted by echocollate at 8:35 AM on May 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


No workers' comp, roomthreeseventeen?
posted by LindsayIrene at 8:35 AM on May 22, 2015


I think the idea of the Internet as this great repository of knowledge that would enlighten us all was a pipe dream of the 90s.

This is a strawman. What I see is that "cite?" is routinely accepted in online discussion. There's a changing social norm where demanding some form of support for an assertion is okay, now that for many things referencing support isn't impossible. I've seen debates on hot topics shift from arguing about the nature of people to the interpretation of actual data. No one's claiming it's perfect or that the Internet will save us. But it feels like a step forward.
posted by fatbird at 8:38 AM on May 22, 2015 [6 favorites]


Most people think of coffee at the normal temperature that they drink it and therefore are shocked that someone would sue over spilling coffee on themselves.

180 degrees is not the normal temperature of coffee. You can't drink coffee this hot. But it is considered an ideal brewing temperature--the temperature of the water right as it is dripping through the coffee. McDonalds had a consultant who told them this. Somehow this translated to "keep the coffee at 180 degrees", which also means "serve the coffee at 180 degrees", which is what they did, and is absurd.
posted by eye of newt at 8:41 AM on May 22, 2015 [6 favorites]


No workers' comp, roomthreeseventeen?

Nope. I didn't ask, it wasn't offered. I was in high school with a single parent who didn't know my rights, either.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:42 AM on May 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Why am I not surprised that McDonalds would rook a teenager out of workers' comp?
posted by LindsayIrene at 8:43 AM on May 22, 2015 [14 favorites]


180 degrees is not the normal temperature of coffee. You can't drink coffee this hot. But it is considered an ideal brewing temperature--the temperature of the water right as it is dripping through the coffee. McDonalds had a consultant who told them this. Somehow this translated to "keep the coffee at 180 degrees", which also means "serve the coffee at 180 degrees", which is what they did, and is absurd.

Not exactly-- their own documents show that they kept it that hot because 1) it meant that people who ordered it for eating at the restaurant were unlikely to drink it quickly and then get free refills, which saved the restaurant money, and 2) they were trying to cater to people who ordered it on the way to work, but not to drink immediately. The idea was that it would be drinkable after 30 minutes of traffic.

They were also the industry outlier, which is part of the story that I wish had been included here. They had been warned, repeatedly, by multiple sources, that what they were doing was dangerous.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:45 AM on May 22, 2015 [27 favorites]


Wasn't part of the reason the media myth was able to spread so widely that she was forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement whereby she was forbidden from talking about the court case and defending herself when people started to spin the story?
posted by C'est la D.C. at 8:46 AM on May 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is a strawman. What I see is that "cite?" is routinely accepted in online discussion. There's a changing social norm where demanding some form of support for an assertion is okay
fatbird

You're only reinforcing my point. I said that the kind of people who do this are the kind already inclined to do this, and the places you go online to discuss things are going to be full of like-minded people. You're just describing preaching to the choir.

You don't seem like the kind of person who is moving in serious climate denier circles, or anti-evolution circles, or actual Tea Party circles. Try to going to an actual center of those kinds of movements, places like FreeRepublic or the Breitbart forums, and see how far you get.

You're in your own bubble, they're in theirs. In every bubble everyone is agreeing with each other. There's no change in social norms, there's just a concentration of "skeptical" people in their own arenas.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:47 AM on May 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is a strawman. What I see is that "cite?" is routinely accepted in online discussion. There's a changing social norm where demanding some form of support for an assertion is okay
fatbird


Except then you get into back-and-forth arguments where the opposing site is explaining how Snopes and Merriam-Webster are tools of the libr'ul media but IslamIsSatan.com is a totally legit source for all their information.
posted by schroedinger at 8:59 AM on May 22, 2015 [6 favorites]


If someone brings this up I usually just say that the coffee was insanely hot, way hotter than from any other business, nearly boiling, and she was in the hospital for a week and needed skin grafts.

My go-to is that McDonalds was serving coffee that would almost instantly destroy your flesh if you dared to touch it.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:01 AM on May 22, 2015 [5 favorites]


The thing is, it's not just this case. This case is well known enough that it's pretty much run its course. It has its true believers who are so entrenched in the notion of out of control litigiousness that they'll never listen, but the real story has gotten enough exposure that it doesn't work well. The information is out there for anyone who is open to it.

But there are a million other urban legends out there just like it. Now, the US is a huge country, the justice system can be capricious, and our broken health care system bankrupts people for getting sick or injured, which can all but force injured parties to sue for their damages. Based on all that, I would expect to that there would be a fair number of outrageous lawsuits that people could cite in favor of tort reform.

But every time I've actually looked up one of the examples people provide, it's been either wildly misrepresented or apparently completely fabricated.

The insurance industry has done a great job of manipulating popular attitudes and driving the narrative around personal injury law, so it seems particularly damning that the evidence for their side is so reliant on falsehoods.

And if you haven't seen Hot Coffee, please do. It not only points up a lot of the common misconceptions about personal injury law, but it drives home the real damage that senseless tort reform has caused for real people.

There is a very strong and compelling undercurrent of just world thinking involved, as evidenced by a lot of the people they interview in the documentary. They have some base level of justice that they just assume. Like assuming that, if you're injured due to someone else's negligence, the court system will allow you to recover compensation for your actual damages--your medical bills, lost wages, etc..

Of course, that's not true at all. There are egregious, inexcusable injustices baked directly into common tort reform measures. In my state, there is a cap on actual medical malpractice damages, meaning that, if you are are seriously injured or permanently disabled due to medical malpractice, you cannot recover even the cost of your medical bills. And make no mistake, it happens all the time. (And no, medical malpractice insurance is not commensurately less expensive as a result.)
posted by ernielundquist at 9:03 AM on May 22, 2015 [22 favorites]


I find the "Hot Coffee" lady case is a useful line in the sand to determine whether or not somebody is worth engaging in discussion.

If someone today, despite factual information about the case being readily available online, still reacts to this case with any variation of: "THE MCDONALD'S LADY IS AN EXAMPLE OF FRIVOLOUS LAWSUITS GONE TOTALLY OUT OF CONTROL", "WHATEVER HAPPENED TO PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY, MAN?", "THIS IS WHAT IS WRONG WITH OUR SOCIETY TODAY, EVERYBODY LOOKING FOR A REASON TO SUE", then I know I am talking to someone who is more interested in having talking points to be outraged about rather than reality, and thus, me and the person in question should probably stick to talking about hockey or something, since it really isn't worth the emotional energy to engage deeper.
posted by The Gooch at 9:05 AM on May 22, 2015 [21 favorites]


This and "the Twinkie Defense".

Oh my god, I had never heard! Consider me educated.
posted by corb at 9:13 AM on May 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


That alone makes this a success story in which future harm to others is at least mitigated AND proves that McDonald's actually was doing something wrong.

I feel the need to point out that, legally speaking, it's extremely impermissible to use this sort of thing as proof of prior fault or misconduct.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:13 AM on May 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Still, I like Carson's joke about it's so hot in LA I've been pouring McDonald's coffee in my lap to cool off.


I had known the suit was not foolish, but had not known the extent of her injuries. yeesh. (even without looking)
posted by Trochanter at 9:15 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


"THIS IS WHAT IS WRONG WITH OUR SOCIETY TODAY, EVERYBODY LOOKING FOR A REASON TO SUE"

In my admittedly limited experience, too, it's these people who are the first to threaten to file their own frivolous lawsuits. It's like they have this notion that the system is so horrible and unjust that you can get a million dollar award easy peasy if someone hurts your feelings, and that's basically their retirement plan.

We have a running joke in my house where we yell about "PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY" and "COMMON SENSE!" and threaten to sue each other over things like loading the dishwasher wrong and hogging covers.

I figure if we each sue the other guy for $10 million, then we can retire on our combined $20 million.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:26 AM on May 22, 2015 [23 favorites]


I was wondering if anyone has evidence other than the comic for McDonald's reducing the temperature of their coffee as a result of the lawsuit. The Wikipedia page for Liebeck v McDonald's claims the temperature has not been lowered, though their evidence is a UK burn incident from 2007 in which McDonald's stated the ideal temp was 85C +/- 5C, and obviously there could be different policies in the US v UK, or a change in company policy from 2007.
posted by scottcal at 9:39 AM on May 22, 2015


ZeusHumms: "... one student finally stood up and informed everyone that that lady was his grandmother and he was sitting in the car with her. ... I have never again seen and been a part of so many people instantly and rightfully shamed."

That story is so incredibly perfect that I have a twinge of suspicion it's not true. Of course it probably makes me an outlier that I have that twinge, rather than the demonstrated tendency to massage a story to make it more perfect. (She was driving the car! She got 3 million dollars!)
posted by RobotHero at 9:41 AM on May 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


We have a running joke in my house where we yell about "PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY" and "COMMON SENSE!" and threaten to sue each other over things like loading the dishwasher wrong and hogging covers.

This is fantastic and I plan to start shouting these phrases at my husband and roommate and then they can sue you for emotional damages when I drive them both insane.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:51 AM on May 22, 2015 [10 favorites]


In my admittedly limited experience, too, it's these people who are the first to threaten to file their own frivolous lawsuits. It's like they have this notion that the system is so horrible and unjust that you can get a million dollar award easy peasy if someone hurts your feelings, and that's basically their retirement plan.

Anecdata: a bunch of years ago, I was crossing an avenue in a crosswalk when a car turned the corner and hit me. Sounds waaaay more dramatic than it was; the bumper struck me lightly and knocked me back a bit, but that's all. The driver, a young man, jumped out of the car looking absolutely terrified, apologizing himself to death, asking if I was ok, etc. Yes, I was ok, and annoyed more than anything; I admonished him that he was lucky I was ok and that he really, really needed to pay attention while he was driving through a crosswalk because had the timing been just slightly different and had he been driving just a little faster, things could have been a whole lot worse for both of us. End of scene.

Almost every single person I told this story to had the same reaction: "Score!!! You were hit by a car! You're going to sue, right?!?!" Um, no, I wasn't. What did they think I would have gained by doing so? I wasn't hurt, I had zero expenses because I had zero injuries, and that was that. But people were actually kind of giddy on my behalf because they thought I'd be getting a nice fat judgment from the driver because he was careless (and make no mistake, he really was careless).

It's depressing; people really do have the notion that if you're in an accident, you've as good as won the lottery because you're going to be able to collect zillion dollar judgments for your trouble, even if you actually, you know, had no trouble. It's not how the tort system works. It drives me bugfuck that people think it is.
posted by holborne at 9:53 AM on May 22, 2015 [22 favorites]


The part where McD's lawyers said "she's old and so her body parts are worn out and therefore worth less money" is one of the most horrifying parts of the whole case.

Hmmm, perhaps. On the other hand we routinely accept the same argument from the other direction (that is, "she had her whole life in front of her which you have now blighted, so you have to compensate her for a lifetime of future suffering").

As for the McDonald's coffee story I don't know if it just says something about the sites I tend to read or what, but I can't now remember the last time I saw a reference to it in its legendary form and not as an exploded legend. I think this is one case where the utopian "the Internet will be a vast repository of facts" idea actually has some purchase.
posted by yoink at 9:54 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


holborne: I actually did have a significant amount of trouble as a result of a crash, eighteen months ago, and actually did try to sue, since the other driver told a bullshit story about how she was just sitting there doing nothing while I spontaneously crashed my motorcycle for no reason at all, and her insurance refused to pay for anything. The suit went nowhere, I collected $0, and I'm still paying off the surgery bill. Made me really skeptical about all these stories of people collecting millions of dollars in damages over nothing! It just can't be that simple.
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:10 AM on May 22, 2015 [7 favorites]


My 'a-hah' moment on the Coffee Lawsuit came while I was sitting in the main cafeteria at Kodak world headquarters, c. about 1995. I overheard a conversation between two lawyers at the next table. They were discussing liability issues, and the one I pegged as slightly senior to the other proceeded to explain why the Coffee Lawsuit was not frivolous and why McDonald's deserved what they got.

I remember thinking, 'these guys are corporate liability soldiers, and they think it wasn't frivolous?'
posted by lodurr at 10:18 AM on May 22, 2015 [9 favorites]


As for temperature reduction: I don't know what the evidence of record says (I'd be skeptical of anything you find, since they treat all their procedures as tantamount to trade secrets), but I know what my mouth says. They do not keep it as hot anymore.

They also store it in a totally different way. In that time, it was stored in closed, self-heated steel urns with a spigot on the bottom. Now it's stored in glass pots on a standard commercial-kitchen coffee brewing rig.
posted by lodurr at 10:21 AM on May 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


At least at the law school I attended, this is the textbook case on punitive damages and the different schemas of damages (restitution v. punitive, statutory, etc.). We were taught how much to debunk this case, and also it led into the subject of just how much tort reform has been made as a consequence.
Long story short, with the reforms made during the Bush years, proportional punitive damages are capped and strictly regulated, and are easily overturned by Judges (in federal courts at least). People complaining about Liebeck v. Mcdonald's are now like people complaining about Lochner, or Korematsu- even if your gripe is legitimate, the law has moved on from that case.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 10:43 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm skeptical of the claim that restaurants normally server coffee in the 130-150 range. The original article is gone, but the Tampa ABC affiliated TV station tested 33 fast-food restaurants following a burn incident in 2011, just 4 years ago, 17 years after Liebeck.

This is covered from a (tort-reform-advocating) blog which had linked to the now missing article:
The station’s study indicated that the majority of the coffee was served between 150 and 180 degrees. It should be noted, however, that the coffee served in the 150-degree temperature range came primarily from Arby’s and Wendy’s – two restaurants that do not serve breakfast and are not historically known for their coffee. Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Krispy Kreme, and McDonalds all tested in the 168 to 180 degree range.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:14 AM on May 22, 2015 [5 favorites]


If only we just did as the friendly corporations asked, we'd all be so much happier. Let's just let them vote directly from now on, too. It's like they're people. (They actually are people in some ways. Immoral, untouchable people who have only your best interests at heart, citizen.)
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 11:27 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm skeptical of the claim that restaurants normally server coffee in the 130-150 range. The original article is gone, but the Tampa ABC affiliated TV station tested 33 fast-food restaurants following a burn incident in 2011, just 4 years ago, 17 years after Liebeck.

The whole "but everyone's doing it!" angle is kind of weird. The measure here should be at what temperature scalding takes place, not that everybody is negligent and therefore magically nobody is negligent.
posted by indubitable at 11:37 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


At Sunburnt: I agree. Note that the National Coffee Association Website recommends maintaining the temperature of coffee at 180 to 185° before serving.

At indubitable: The problem with the negligence analysis that you provide is that most courts do not agree that serving hot coffee is per se negligent. Most courts would (and did) throw out such a case entirely before it ever went to the jury. That is why the Liebeck case is an eyebrow raising outlier.
posted by Mr. Justice at 11:42 AM on May 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


I had an accident while working at McDonald's in 1997, spilled brand new coffee grinds all over my arm at 6AM. I was a kid, and the accident was my fault. However, I ended up with 2nd and 3rd degree burns. I didn't get anything out of McDonald's other than a week off. (And a semester out of gym.)

If your employment situation as a high-schooler on minimum wage was such that you could easily get into an accident where you ended up with 3rd-degree burns, I submit that you were not entirely at fault (though I imagine I'm preaching to the choir there.)
posted by Navelgazer at 11:44 AM on May 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's a shame that the comic is perfect until the end where it suggests media are spreading the lies because they get advertising money from McDonald's. That must be proved with the same vigor as everything else in the comic.
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:46 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


kitteh, that's a work-related injury and you should have been covered by Worker's Compensation. It pisses me off that many employers don't adequately care for their staff. That's just horrible.
posted by theora55 at 12:43 PM on May 22, 2015


Frivolous lawsuit stories seem to have the same narrative qualities as "welfare queen" stories: a bunch of badly remembered anecdotes presented as proof it happens all the time.
posted by mccarty.tim at 12:53 PM on May 22, 2015 [8 favorites]


Instead of assuming collusion with McDonald's, I think it's safer in George Will's case that he's just a colossal asshole and is almost always wrong about everything.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 1:24 PM on May 22, 2015 [5 favorites]


Hm. I read that last panel differently.

I did not read it as 'These specific media figures colluded with McDonalds.' I read it rather as 'people beholden to the media may be swayed to identify with large institutions that are heavily involved with the media.'
posted by lodurr at 1:28 PM on May 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


Like welfare queen stories, frivolous lawsuit stories seem to have a certain racial element as well. A number of people who I've set straight on the McDonald's hot coffee case have owned up to being surprised by the woman's age (elderly) and ethnicity (white), having unconsciously assumed (based on years of email forwards and talk-radio chatter) that she was both younger and blacker than she was in actuality. Since a lot of these stories are based around the already heavily-racialized "makers vs. takers" myth, it's not surprising that conservative folklore would eventually paint the antagonists as universally non-white.
posted by Strange Interlude at 1:34 PM on May 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


Let us not forget the mythic corollary to any such "frivolous lawsuit" hate-on..."The lawyers get {insert ridiculously high percentage here} of the money"
posted by Thorzdad at 1:35 PM on May 22, 2015


"...one student finally stood up and informed everyone that that lady was his grandmother and he was sitting in the car with her. ... I have never again seen and been a part of so many people instantly and rightfully shamed."

That story is so incredibly perfect that I have a twinge of suspicion it's not true.
posted by RobotHero at 9:41 AM on May 22 [+] [!]


It does have a vague whiff of the apocryphal "brave student stands up in class and debunks theory of evolution" internet urban legend about it.
posted by Atom Eyes at 2:56 PM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


I gather this case has gotten really political in the USA with regards to "tort reform" or whatever. I'm not really familiar with that particular discussion, but I can't help but feel the "Hot Coffee" doc side of things takes things a bit further than I am comfortable with.

The whole "but everyone's doing it!" angle is kind of weird. The measure here should be at what temperature scalding takes place, not that everybody is negligent and therefore magically nobody is negligent.

See I think this is weird. Odds are that what you or I know as coffee is served very hot, at temperatures that we would take as defective or unreasonable in the Liebeck case. That's the coffee you or I buy at Starbucks, almost every time. This article tested a few places and found that at McDonalds, Starbucks, and Tim Hortons serve coffee around 175 degrees regularly. Every day I buy coffee at this temperature and I know it and I don't find it unreasonable. This is a chart that shows when water will scald. Even 140 degree water will scald in 5 seconds. 133 degree water can cause 2nd or third degree burns in 15 seconds. My understanding is that Liebeck was exposed to the hot coffee for 90 seconds because she was basically stuck with a cup of even more hot coffee between her legs while sitting in a car. If you're in a restaurant, how long is it going to take you to get your skin under cold water after an incident like this to prevent scalding? Wouldn't this factor in? I'd say you'd want a good 30-60 seconds. If the measure is "scalding", be aware that scalding can happen at what you would not think is a particularly high temperature. Lukewarm would be the only legally acceptable way for restaurants and coffee shops to sell coffee. I like mine hot, I am aware it's hot, I expect it to be hot, and I know hot things burn. I thought most people were the same, but when this topic comes up it seems like I'm in a minority that sees opening a flimsy cup of what you know to be very hot liquid while you're squeezing it between your legs is a really bad idea. The pictures, while certainly gruesome, do not change this for me. I still see the negligent act starting and ending right there, it's not a reasonable thing a reasonable person should do. IMO certainly a whole lot more than the 20% the jury found should be on her.

ALSO the bits about McDonalds' lawyers not being likeable. They may have screwed up in how they presented their case to the jury, I'm not a lawyer, I don't know how you want to do this in front of a jury. BUT. They may have been doing exactly what they were supposed to do in arguing that the damages should be less because she is older. Damages aren't just some arbitrary number. Calculating damages can be unpleasant business to an outside observer and the defense has to make some arguments sometimes that are going to come off sounding callous. For example, the loss of earning capacity for a gainfully employed 25-year-old is going to be greater than for a retired 80-year-old. The ages of the people involved can be relevant. I'm not sure how they presented this or in what context, but this is potentially an argument McDonalds lawyers should have been making. They are also correct that 700 lawsuits are statistically insignificant when you sell hundreds of millions of cups of coffee daily. Like, if all of those lawsuits were made in a single year, it would represent 0.0007% or less of the people that bought coffee at McDonald's. But it wasn't even in just one year--it was all-time, since McDonalds started selling coffee. To me, this looks like it's not really a big problem--that the temperature the coffee is served at is reasonably safe for use by practically all consumers.

I'm no fan of McDonald's, but I'm even less a fan of how health care is provided in your country. This case would literally have never gone to court if health care was free like here in Canada--all she initially came to McDonald's for was her medical expenses, and had those not been a concern, it might have just been a complaint call to their 1-800 number. But it is what it is and I am too far removed from the American political context to understand why it's a good thing that the courts need to be used to supplement health care.
posted by Hoopo at 3:06 PM on May 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


This reminds me of the 2004 presidential election, when VP candidate John Edwards was routinely smeared for being a "trial lawyer," seeking out these types of cases and plaintiffs. One of the cases that established his reputation was about a child who was literally disemboweled by a swimming pool pump.
posted by rustcrumb at 3:09 PM on May 22, 2015 [5 favorites]


They may have been doing exactly what they were supposed to do in arguing that the damages should be less because she is older.

A lawyer's job, first and foremost, is to best represent the interests of their client. Making legally sound but emotionally tonedeaf arguments that infuriate the jury is a failure of that job.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:39 PM on May 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


In every mediation and settlement conference I've been to defense lawyers argue damages. It is my understanding it is often a required part of the trial. It is in the interests of the defendant. I don't see anything in the comic about how these arguments were made and it seems to me you'd have to assume a lot.
posted by Hoopo at 3:55 PM on May 22, 2015


I gather this case has gotten really political in the USA with regards to "tort reform" or whatever. I'm not really familiar with that particular discussion, but I can't help but feel the "Hot Coffee" doc side of things takes things a bit further than I am comfortable with.

What specifically goes too far? You mean about that specific case, or in general?
posted by ernielundquist at 4:23 PM on May 22, 2015


What specifically goes too far? You mean about that specific case, or in general?

The specific argument being made in the documentary and in some comments here that the result and the arguments in of this lawsuit are 100% what should have happened. I'm not familiar with the American tort reform debate at all, but I gather this case is a dog whistle of some kind so much that people on this site are actually saying they use an opinion on the Liebeck case as a reason not to take you seriously in general
posted by Hoopo at 4:27 PM on May 22, 2015


The part where McD's lawyers said "she's old and so her body parts are worn out and therefore worth less money" is one of the most horrifying parts of the whole case.

Hmmm, perhaps. On the other hand we routinely accept the same argument from the other direction (that is, "she had her whole life in front of her which you have now blighted, so you have to compensate her for a lifetime of future suffering").


This seems like an exceedingly literal interpretation of the implications of that argument. That we place a premium on the youth does not have to imply some scale of damages that decreases linearly with the age of the victim.
posted by invitapriore at 4:28 PM on May 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


The judgment in the Liebeck case was the jury's decision (tempered by the judge's reductions in damages, IIRC), and that was largely based on the fact that McDonalds was treating the inevitable burn injuries as a cost of doing business. The jury that heard the entire case and saw all the evidence presented came to the conclusion that McDonads was negligent, and tried to award what they believed was fair.

The real problem with uninvolved parties having a strong opinion about the case itself is that the case itself was pretty much insignificant in the larger scheme of the US justice system. The only reason so many people even know about it is because of the urban legends and the tort reform propaganda it became associated with. On its own, it's just a twenty year old personal injury case.

The misrepresentations of that case, and of others like it, was a driving force behind many sweeping tort reform measures throughout the US, and that is in large part what the Hot Coffee documentary is about. They're pretty much inextricably linked.
posted by ernielundquist at 4:57 PM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oh hey, I burned myself once in a pretty similar way. Never realized.

My mom had just picked me and my husband up from a flight, so I was pretty groggy. I was wearing a sundress, sitting in the back seat. My mom pulled over so we could put cream in our coffees, and there were no cupholders in back, so I held it between my knees and opened it. Then she took her foot off the brake.

I'll never forget how much it hurt, and this must have been after they lowered the temperature of the coffee. It wasn't a bad burn--first degree, no lasting damage, though it hurt enough that I had to take a bunch of tylenol to get to sleep that night. But it was such a stupidly easy mistake to make.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:26 PM on May 22, 2015


This is an interesting story that illustrates the larger point:

"Nuisance lawsuits" are a completely, totally, utterly non-existent problem. Never was real, never has been, never will be. If a lawsuit is frivolous, the court throws it out. If one person brings too many nuisance suits, the courts have the power to censure them in various ways.

The civil courts are the one tiny little chance the average citizen has of leveling the playing field against massive corporations and governments, and those advocating "tort reform" know that fact very very well.

"Nuisance lawsuits" are a problem the same way "welfare queens driving Cadillacs" are a problem.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:44 PM on May 22, 2015 [11 favorites]


"Nuisance lawsuits" are a completely, totally, utterly non-existent problem

This is also true in my experience and I'm in the business of liability claims. Frankly the system already has deterrents against frivolous suits because it costs time and money to take legal action and sometimes if you get all the way to court, you can potentially be penalized by having to pay the defendant's legal costs.
posted by Hoopo at 5:58 PM on May 22, 2015 [5 favorites]


I should say: people do go to court with crappy claims sometimes, and often lose, so depending on your definition of "nuisance" they do exist, but it's not as much as the people who complain about it would lead you to believe.
posted by Hoopo at 6:07 PM on May 22, 2015


"McDonald's proved themselves to be jerks and the jury didn't like that"

You really don't want to get on a jury's bad side, that's for sure. The last time I sat on a jury, the first vote we took was whether the prosecutor was an asshole. We voted to convict. He did not get the verdict he wanted, either.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:10 PM on May 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


The misrepresentations of that case, and of others like it, was a driving force behind many sweeping tort reform measures throughout the US, and that is in large part what the Hot Coffee documentary is about

man you better hope they don't look North. We had a guy up here win $340,000 because there was a fly in his water bottle. It was overturned eventually, but still. (Note: I'm not advocating any changes and I don't know what "tort reform" means to you guys but it seems to be a Republican thing so it's probably not my bag).

treating the inevitable burn injuries as a cost of doing business.

This may be what the jury thought, but I don't think this was the argument made. This is why they brought up the scale of ther coffee sales. From some quick googling, it was 700 reports of burns from coffee over 10 years from a company that sells 1 in 10 coffees sold in the USA (I'm gonna make a conservative estimate of a billion coffees in that span easily). 700 out of a billion is what, 7 in 10,000,000? Let's say 1 in a million, rounding down again. I guess I could see an argument that a burn was foreseeable, but the scale argument works for me. It is a small enough number that I think it qualifies as an unfortunate accident rather than an inevitable result of serving coffee at a temperature that can burn skin. 1 in a million is a risk I'm willing to take.
posted by Hoopo at 8:36 PM on May 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


> "Nuisance lawsuits" are a completely, totally, utterly non-existent problem. Never was real, never has been, never will be. If a lawsuit is frivolous, the court throws it out. If one person brings too many nuisance suits, the courts have the power to censure them in various ways.

That'd be awesome if the courts were a uniformly just monolith of legal practice, but of course it isn't, and there exist opportunities in many states for forum-shopping by the plaintiffs. There exist so-called (by the torn-reformers) “judicial hellholes" which are counties which take tort cases and favor plaintiffs, and big payouts can lead to big court fees. Some states limit the ability to select the venue, or require that the judicial venue is a place relevant to the case, but quite a lot of others don't. The fact is that plenty of courts take cases that other courts would throw out, and the plaintiffs' bar knows which is which.
posted by Sunburnt at 12:37 AM on May 23, 2015


That we place a premium on the youth does not have to imply some scale of damages that decreases linearly with the age of the victim.

That is flatly self-contradictory. If we pay people extra in damages because they are young then by definition we are paying people less if they're old. And if the basis of the argument is how long the victim can be reasonably expected to live with the consequences of the injury or the number of major life events that are impacted by the injury then, yes, that will necessarily imply a "scale of damages that decreases linearly with the age of the victim."
posted by yoink at 7:32 AM on May 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh, I love this comic. The misinformation about this lawsuit makes me gnash my teeth.
posted by sarcasticah at 11:56 AM on May 23, 2015


The misconceptions about the story that are corrected seem largely irrelevant to the question of how frivolous the lawsuit was. What does it matter if she was driving a car, or instead sitting in the passenger seat? It's perfectly possible to spill coffee on yourself in either position. Who cares if McDonalds and its representatives were jerks? Of course they were, nobody's surprised by that. The writer didn't find anyone to quote who was claiming that the burns weren't serious, because that's sort of beside the point.

If people were being rational about it, none of this "misinformation" would change any minds one way or the other. It still comes down to the same basic question: Should there be a temperature above which it becomes legally unacceptable to serve coffee? For the foreseeable future the world is going to remain full of people who think the answer is obvious, and either yes or no.
posted by sfenders at 4:31 PM on May 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


Whether their lawyers were jerks should be irrelevant, but the question of whether she was driving could be relevant to the case in terms of determining fault. And if it's relevant to the case, it's relevant to people using it as an example of an injustice that must be prevented. (Through tort reform or whatever)
posted by RobotHero at 6:54 PM on May 23, 2015


the question of whether she was driving could be relevant to the case in terms of determining fault.

I suppose anything could be made relevant if the jury was sufficiently susceptible to argument, but it seems a bit far-fetched to imagine that the person who spilled the coffee was any less than 100% responsible for the actual spilling of the coffee part of the ordeal.
posted by sfenders at 7:53 PM on May 23, 2015


If someone were injured using a chainsaw I manufactured, I think it would be very relevant whether they were just cutting some branches with proper eye protection or were juggling them on a unicycle. And I don't think that's far-fetched to make that distinction.
posted by RobotHero at 9:27 PM on May 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


I didn't mean that all methods of spilling coffee on yourself are indistinguishable, just that the distinction in this case does not help in discerning the extent to which the vendor was responsible for the damage. It might affect how we feel about the victim, but it shouldn't affect the culpability of the people who set the temperature on the coffee machine. Accidentally spilling a drink is not an aberrant behavior that needs to be explained and justified, so outside ordinary experience that it's comparable to juggling chainsaws.

If there was some suggestion that McDonalds could have, or should have, done anything to make beverage containment failure events less likely, then the particulars of this one would become important.
posted by sfenders at 3:18 AM on May 24, 2015


But I got that info from the print edition of the Detroit Metro Times in 1995.

Note that Shannon first published this in December 2000.
posted by Rash at 5:15 PM on May 24, 2015


Note that Shannon first published this in December 2000.

I was referring to the 1995 Tom Tomorrow strip on the lawsuit linked in my comment above that one.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:55 AM on May 25, 2015


The link is broken at the moment; here's the google cache.
posted by NoraReed at 9:30 AM on June 10, 2015


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