Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Suing McDonald's Over Hot Coffee

Here in America we love to tell jokes and complain about lawyers. Even though, as John Adams said, we are "not a nation of men, but of laws," our public discourse doesn't seem to acknowledge this at times. I don't understand why so many people get obsessed by high profile trials like the OJ or the Casey Anthony case. Recently, someone that I know, personally, went to trial for a fairly high profile case here in Vermont and I was amazed at the on-line discourse about the case. People were following it very closely, people who didn't know anyone involved. Their comments were so vitriolic and outrageous, it is hard to see how anyone can have a fair trial when the court of public opinion is so decisive and powerful. Even after the trial is decided, the cases seem to obtain a life of their own.

The Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants is one of the high profile cases that seems to get brought up time and again for the past (almost) 20 years. The longer in the past the case is, the more distorted the facts get. It comes up a lot in conversations when people bring up how Americans are "sue-happy," ready to bring anyone to court to make a buck. People say that a woman dropped a hot coffee on herself while driving and sued McDonald's for millions. The facts of the case are much more complicated.
  • For one, she didn't drop the coffee. The styrofoam cup that was carrying the coffee dissolved in her hand. This is because the coffee was over 170 degrees Fahrenheit (this is the low estimate). The standard cup of coffee is 140 degrees.
  • She had third degree burns on her thighs, groin and buttocks. She had to be in the hospital for 8 days getting skin removed and repaired.
  • She was not driving, she was the passenger.
  • The car was parked while she was opening the top of the coffee to put cream and sugar in it.
  • She didn't sue for millions. She sued for the balance of her medical bills that her Medicare didn't pay. She was 79 years old. McDonald's only offered her $800 which didn't cover it. The jury moved in her favor awarding her $2.9 million. The judge reduced it to $260,000.00 (about 2 days worth of profit for McDonald's).
She would have gotten more if she wasn't at fault at all. McDonald's was found 80% guilty while Liebeck was found 20% guilty. A good part of their guilt was that they had already been sued for this offense over 700 times. The smoking gun in the case was a fax that they had sent to their chains, over and over, telling their teenage employees that ... whenever you think the coffee is hot enough, think again (I am paraphrasing).

So the next time you hear a Republican claim that we need tort reform, they are talking about stopping the ability of 79 year old ladies from suing large corporations (their contributors) for their organizational negligence. If corporations have the free speech of individuals, surely they have the responsibility of individuals as well. Coffee at McDonald's nowadays are delicious and safe, thanks to the lawyers.

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