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)