I missed this back in 1995: quick facts about that McDonalds Coffee lawsuit

I don’t mean that I missed previously learning the facts laid out in this classic Tom Tomorrow strip, just that I missed the strip itself at the time. It would be nice to think that there weren’t still ignorant twerps repeating the idea that the lawsuit was unfounded/frivolous/a grave miscarriage against a poor defenceless megacorporation/harrumph/wharrgarbl, but sadly there still are. Since Tom Tomorrow’s archives have been “undergoing renovation” for a while, it’s a bit hard to find his older strips, so thanks to Nurse Ingrid on Greta Christina’s post on how certain facts are often elided in arguments for the link.

a strip from Tom Tomorrow's This Modern World webcomic

Panel 1: A pale-skinned man with short dark hair and wearing a suit and tie (Biff) is arguing with a penguin wearing extremely cool goggles (Sparky)
BIFF: Sparky, even you can’t argue with Mr Newt about the need for tort reform! I mean – have you heard about the whiner who sued McDonalds because she spilled hot coffee in her lap – and she was awarded three million dollars!
SPARKY: Why, yes, I have, Biff…
Panel 2: headshot of Sparky
SPARKY:  That “whiner” was 79 years old, and the coffee was so scalding hot that she received third-degree burns across her groin, thighs and buttocks … she underwent skin grafts and spent eight days in the hospital, resulting in a medical bill of more than $10, 000 … McDonalds offered her $800.
So she went to court, where she was offered the famous 3 million dollar settlement …
Panel 3: two-shot of Sparky and Biff
SPARKY: … which incidentally she never received, since it -  like nearly all punitive damages awarded by juries – was later reduced substantially.
Panel 4: headshot of Biff, sullenly staring at Sparky
BIFF: (says nothing)
Panel 5: two-shot of Sparky and Biff
BIFF: (looking away from Sparky) Oh.
SPARKY: Facts really take the fun out of anecdotal evidence, don’t they Biff?

Of course, when one comes up against a fact-elider, it’s important to remember that ignorance rather than malice is often the reason, and that constructive discourse is rarely enhanced by a pile-on (although pile-ons are sometimes a necessary demonstration of solidarity for polemic and ally-work reasons).

Categories: culture wars, ethics & philosophy, law & order, skepticism

Tags: , , ,

7 replies

  1. Maybe everybody knows the other little factoid in the case. I heard about it from a lawyer familiar with the whole thing. Apparently, the reason McD’s had their coffee so insanely hot was that then it produced a stronger aroma which produced more sales. So, it was with malice aforethought, but the 79 year-old was the whiner.

  2. I also got some extra info on Twitter:

    @vivsmythe “quick facts about that McDonalds Coffee lawsuit” http://t.co/d14RrVet Also: McD superheated its coffee; >20 previous injuries
    — Kevin T. Keith (@KTKeith) July 5, 2012

  3. Relatedly I discovered in a conversation about this some years ago that some people don’t believe a corporation should be legally responsible for the actions of a rogue employee. The context was a lawsuit over a fast food employee lacing the food with hashish, and it went like this:
    Mary: Uh, I’d frankly probably also bring a lawsuit against a company who sold me food laced with a psychoactive drug or other dangerous ingredient.
    Interlocutors: But it wasn’t in the employee’s orders. He did it by himself. No one will ever open another fast food chain if they can be held responsible for rogue employee’s actions on behalf of the company.
    Mary: Uh, too bad for the fast food chain? They still hypothetically sold me food laced with hashish.
    I think a lot of people are very reflexively anti-lawsuit.

  4. Mary – I think it depends on what level of liability you expect companies to have and if they have taken reasonable steps to prevent problems.
    In the example you mentioned I think the person who should be bearing the majority of the responsibility is the rogue employee, but of course you may run into the problem that they have no assets so there’s no point suing them. Perhaps having a victims compensation fund where criminals (and this is presumably a criminal act) are fined and the money put into a general pool is used to compensate their victims (like is done for violent crimes).
    The liability of companies for rogue employees also needs to be balanced against employee rights. Are we going to allow employers to require drug testing or random searching of employees to help prevent these sorts of cases? And there is perhaps the unintended consequence that businesses will be even less willing to employ people who have been convicted of a crime.
    Re: the McDonalds lawsuit – the wikipedia page is very interesting reading.
    A similar lawsuit in the UK failed because it was found that the temperature at which most customers wanted their coffee/tea served at (at least 65C) would have still caused serious injury.
    And another interesting tidbit – in the original case the woman was found to be 20% at fault because there was a warning on the cup, but only 20% because the writing was too small and not prominent enough.
    It does go some way to explaining why we end up with warnings which you’d think would be common sense like “do not use iron on clothes while wearing them” (and I know someone who has done this!)

  5. Chris, at the other end it is important to not provide companies with too much incentive to paint someone as a rogue employee. I suppose my bias is to explicitly and separately protect employee rights rather than do it by allowing companies to disclaim harm that happened on their premises caused by someone clearly doing a work related task by claiming (undoubtedly correctly in the case of lacing food with hashish!) that it was an unauthorised action.

  6. Mary – I agree about not wanting to give companies too much incentive to just blame something as done by a rogue employee. But in cases where its clear that its the actions of a rogue employee and the organisation has taken reasonable steps to prevent something from occurring then liability should be pretty tightly limited. For example, I don’t think its fair to on one hand expect an organisation to prevent something from happening but on the other hand stop them from taking steps to do so because of employment law.
    I think whilst its tempting to take example of say McDonalds and Starbucks and say that they can afford to make big payouts. But the same standards of legal responsibility end up being borne by non profits or small businesses as well who need to get insurance to cover the same circumstances. Which could lead to say a local organisation being unable to hold a baking sale because they can’t get insurance to cover a rogue volunteer spiking the food and they are not allowed to operate without sufficient insurance.

  7. Regarding the previous injuries – the kicker wasn’t just that this had happened several times before, but that they had been sued before – and they weren’t all small cases. So there was a record that went all the way up to the CEOs.
    I don’t remember what the verdicts/settlements were in each of those cases, but I know that several included warnings/judgements/directions that they needed to lower their coffee to industry standards to keep employees and customers safe. I think the legal catch was that they couldn’t be ordered to do so – in part because the industry standards was just that, a standard, not a law.
    So, not only had this happened before, but ALSO there was proof that McD’s was aware of it at the CEO level AND that they had been given recs on how to fix it – repeatedly – and refused to do so.
    And on top of all that, the injured woman was merely asking for her medical expenses covered. Which McD’s had paid before in other cases, but for some reason decided they were going to take a stand in this case or something.
    Medical expenses that ended up being a fraction of the cost of the trial, by the end.
    (It also didn’t help that the people testifying for McD’s were apparently very patronizing and condescending during their testimony.)
    By the end of the trial the jury wasn’t just pissed at McD’s but also utterly convinced that they would go on injuring people for profit until the law decided to make it unprofitable for them to do so. So they did what they could to make it unprofitable for McD’s to cut corners that caused injury.

%d bloggers like this: