McDonald's Hot Coffee lawsuit: deliberate, corporatist urban legend

Remember the old lady who sued McDonald's for millions because she burned herself by spilling hot coffee in her lap? It never happened. What actually happened was much more sordid, and the deliberate distortion of the story -- which is ultimately about a company that caused repeated, horrific and preventable injury to its customers -- is a tidy story about how corporations have convinced us that they are victims of out-of-control tort lawyers.

Susan Saladoff, a lawyer who made a documentary about the McDonalds coffee case called Hot Coffee, has called frivolous lawsuits a myth. In an appearance on the Colbert Report, she relates all the checks that exist to prevent greedy people from suing for unreasonable amounts of money: judges can throw out frivolous cases and fine people for wasting the court’s resources, a jury deliberates on the right amount of damages to award, judges can reduce the compensation given, and defendants can appeal a ruling.

Saladoff has represented clients in liability lawsuits, so she is no outsider to the debate. But we see some of the restraints at work in the McDonalds case. A jury deliberated and decided on an amount resembling that recommended previously by a professional mediator, and the judge reduced the amount awarded. A different jury and judge could have found differently. (Coffee is often served commercially at temperatures approaching or equal to that served to Stella Liebeck; finding Liebeck 80% or 100% responsible may be reasonable.) But the result was hardly an absurdity, and as designated in the constitution, a jury made the decision.

When the result of a lawsuit make headlines, it is usually because of a multimillion dollar verdict. Those verdicts come from punitive damages, which are only awarded when a company seems unwilling to change its behavior. In this way, individual court cases can serve the public interest.

How A Lawsuit Over Hot Coffee Helped Erode the 7th Amendment [Alex Mayyasi/Pricenomics]

(via Hacker News)

Notable Replies

  1. That's only half the problem. What should the change be?

    In this case, it seems the "solution" is a little warning that says something like "CAUTION: hot water is hot". It's printed on the paper cup full of near-boiling water, in order to warn the person who is in such a rush that they have put the paper cup of near-boiling water between their legs, in a moving car. Is that person going to read the warning? Of course not. But this is somehow the "solution" to the problem.

    What should be the solution? Outlaw hot coffee? Legislate for cups that it is impossible to spill liquid from (presumably non-disposable, very expensive, hence economically non-viable, with the same result as outlawing hot coffee)? It is quite possible that some situations do not have solutions that will always work out.

    In which case, if we just provide "incentive to change", with no realistic direction for the change to go in, then we just get a meaningless change instead.

    As Homer put it, "Because of me, they have a warning!"

Continue the discussion

87 more replies