« Skeptics' Circle #51 • The Rants • Another Reason Not to Read the Funny Pages (Like We Needed One) »
In Which a Reader Wishes Third Degree Genital Burns On Us
2007.01.05 (Fri) 23:33
A few weeks back, our friend Steve was doing a little light cooking. He melted some butter in a pot, but then got distracted by something, and ended up scorching the butter. He set it aside, and after a while he grabbed the pot and stuck it under the faucet to rinse out the butter. Quite suddenly, the butter began bubbling violently, and it proceeded to explode out of the pot and all over Steve's arm, burning him. Once he had tended to his injuries, Steve had a much more important issue to think about: exactly who he could sue.
As any redblooded American can tell you, nothing is ever your own fault. There's always someone who can be made to pay, even for your most idiotic mistake. But who? The manufacturer of the butter? There was no warning label on the package stating that hot butter mixed with cold water could lead to such results. The maker of the pot? After all, there was no disclaimer about the thermal properties of the metal. How about the stove manufacturer? They clearly required a label explaining that electric burners might appear to be off when in fact they are still on (which, as it turns out, was indeed a factor here). Or perhaps...and we're just spitballing here...perhaps this was all Steve's fault.
Which brings us to a comment we received not too long ago about the infamous McDonald's coffee spill case. You know the one we mean — some old lady spills piping hot McDonald's coffee in her lap after a visit to the drive-through and sues McDonald's...then wins her case collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars. For our part, we made a very peripheral reference to it in our Score entry on Tort Reform:
People must take responsibility for their own actions (such as spilling hot coffee on themselves, or eating fattening food, or walking along train tracks and being hit by a train), and stop using the legal system as a slot machine, constantly pulling the lever and hoping for a payoff.
Reader Judith stumbled across our entry, and decided to drop us a line. Her comment was well-researched and intelligent:
Your remarks on tort reform are generally fine and yet you repeat the spurious "spill hot coffee on yourself" cliche which refers I assume to the elderly woman who had 3rd degree burns from McDonalds requiring skin grafts. They had had hundreds of reports of injuries and still did nothing -- she asked first only for payment for medical bills for the grafts and they refused -- this case at least is an example of why we need tort laws, to punish depraved indifference. Here are links to facts, not wishful thinking, on her case:
http://www.corpreform.com/2003/10/the_truth_about.html (includes a photo of a 3rd degree burn so you get an idea of what she went through)
-- they knew 180-190 degree coffee could cause such burns but refused to turn the temp down, quoting here " "The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. The jury reduced this amount to $160,000 because they found Liebeck 20 percent at fault for spilling the coffee (not because she was driving a car). The jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which equals about two days of McDonald's coffee sales. The trial court subsequently reduced the punitive award to $480,000, even though the judge called McDonald's conduct reckless, callous and willful. No one will ever know the final ending to this case. The parties eventually entered into a secret settlement which has never been revealed to the public, despite the fact that this was a public case, litigated in public and subjected to extensive media reporting. Such secret settlements, after public trials, should not be permitted.
After the trial and verdict, it was found that the temperature of coffee at the local Albuquerque McDonald's had dropped to a relatively safe 158 degrees Fahrenheit. This proves that law suits are the only effective mechanism which force companies to produce safe products. Additionally, the real story shows that the court system works. The jury reduced the verdict for the percentage of negligence attributable to the plaintiff. The jury felt that McDonald's actions were so disgusting and heinous that they awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages to punish McDonald's in an effort to stop this kind of callousness. The judge felt that this was too much and reduced McDonald's punishment to only $480,000. Reductions of jury awards is a very little know fact. Judges have the power to reduce a jury award and they do, frequently. Judges reduce awards whenever they feel the jury awarded too much, however, the media never, never reports the reduced awards. They only report the original verdict because, after all, $480,000 punitive award to McDonald's burn victim doesn't sell as well as $2.7 million punitive award to McDonald's burn victim! This is misleading hype journalism, of which John Stossel is also guilty. "---------- the page references Stossel's snotty dismissal of her injuries.
------- whew! if you google, you'll see that this case is not one to be truthfully used to plump for tort reform & "personal responsibility" --- except maybe for the folks at McD's who were so disregarding of others' safety.
Our first response to Judith:
First, we want to say that we appreciate your input, and we applaud your research. Most people who disagree with us do so without spending so much as a few minutes looking into their own positions, and instead present us with "nuh-uh" type arguments. In all sincerity, thanks for taking the time to do your homework.
Still, we have to say that we stand by our assessment of the case in question. To us, the matter comes down to one simple point: this woman spilled coffee on herself. From what we've read, this was entirely her fault. She was holding the cup in her lap while riding as a passenger in a car, and she opened the lid to add cream and sugar, during which time it spilled on her. As far as coffee spilling goes, that's pretty high-risk behavior. Personally, we stop the car to do things like this, even if the liquid in question isn't hot (wet pants don't thrill us, either). Now, if McDonald's had contributed to the act of spilling the coffee in some way — if the lid had been improperly affixed to the cup, or if the cup had been defective — then we would agree that this was partly their fault. However, nothing we've read indicates that this was the case. Instead, it seems that everyone agrees that the act of spilling the coffee was entirely the fault of the woman, and that the reason that McDonald's is partly to blame is that the coffee was "hotter than it should have been."
We simply don't agree.
As the first citation you provided mentions, liquids at even 130 degrees can cause third degree burns, just more slowly. It also mentions that McDonald's later changed their policy such that their coffee is kept at a lower 158 degrees. If she had spilled 158-degree coffee on herself in the same way, and if she had still received third degree burns, why would it be less McDonald's fault in that case than it was in this case? She spilled hot coffee on herself, and that was the cause of her injuries, in either scenario.
The article you've cited for us mentions that McDonald's made $1.35M in coffee sales daily at the time of the case, and then cites 700 injuries due to coffee spills, presumably to show that this was a common occurrence. Though the article doesn't give a time period for those 700 injuries, let's assume it was over the course of one year (we'd be willing to bet it was longer, but let's go with that for now). That would mean that, at an average price of $0.79 per cup, McDonald's sold over 1.7 million cups daily and, therefore, almost 624 millions cups of coffee per year. Out of that, 700 people were burned. That's about 0.0001% of coffee sales resulting in burns. That's literally one-in-a-million, and that's incredibly small. If we were talking about an injury rate of 1%, or even 0.01%, we might agree that McDonald's was creating a dangerous situation, but at this infinitesimally small percentage, we simply don't see it.
In addition, the article mentions that McDonald's didn't warn consumers that the coffee could cause burns. To us, this is the most maddening statement in the entire summary, and it's the usual rationale behind lawsuits that we see as frivolous. It's coffee. Coffee is served hot. Really hot. Of course spilling really hot things on yourself can cause injuries. The implication that this woman somehow wasn't aware of these obvious facts is ridiculous, and it's the primary reason that we will continue to refer to this as a frivolous lawsuit.
We understand that the jury awarded a large sum of money, and then the judge reduced it, and we understand that a judge has the ability to do this. We also understand that the media seldom reports on these changes after the fact because it lessens the hype of the original story. While we agree that this showcases one of the many problems with the mainstream media, we don't agree that the original verdict shows the jury system working, and that the judge's change to the award is problematic. We aren't overly fond of a judge being able to change a jury's decision, but since, in our opinion, the jury system is so severely flawed, allowing a judge to correct an obviously incorrect decision is the only way to even things out under the current system. Of course, a different system, in which we have intelligent and competent juries, would negate the need for such judicial powers, and under such a system, we would argue that judges should not be able to make such changes. But that's a discussion for another day.
Look, if we were McDonald's, we probably would have settled this case for public relations purposes, especially since the woman was just looking for reimbursement of her medical bills. But quite frankly, she didn't deserve a penny. Yes, she was badly injured; yes, she spent a lot of money on her medical bills; yes, the coffee was hot. But she spilled it on herself, so where she got the coffee from makes no difference whatsoever, and taking aim at the arbitrary provider of coffee is just silly. To us, that's the real issue.
The Two Percent Company.
So we had Judith's rational, intelligent challenge to our position, and our logical, polite reply detailing precisely why we disagreed with her. A very nice, civil exchange. Or so we thought. See, Judith's next message was decidely...impolite:
The car was stopped.
She was putting cream into it BEFORE the car moved.
There had been HUNDREDS of complaints re: burns.
McD had already PAID FINES for burning people.
They agreed the coffee at that temperature was in their own words unfit for consumption at that temperature.
(180-190 is by the way not state or fed mandated serving temp. It is however able to cause 3rd degree burns in 2 seconds.)
As part of a medical family and no stranger to the whole lawsuit spectrum, I can tell you that McD had no business dispensing coffee at that temp -- they were "looking for a lawsuit" and showed callous disregard for their customers. Those kinds of burns -- on the most sensitive parts of the anatomy -- require also exquisitely painful debridement (tearing off of successive layers of burned flesh and newly healed flesh, as the first several layers do not heal correctly and have to be repeatedly torn off to accomodate new skin forming correctly ----- often patients must be held down for this to be done, as the pain is unbearable) -------- this is not a wound you could give yourself from a coffee pot at home. This is not a burn you could get at any other restaurant. You could give yourself this kind of burn if you poured boiling water out of a whistling kettle on yourself. Most home water heaters don't even heat to this temperature.
As a retailer myself I can tell you that they were either terribly foolish to burn all those people and not change the serving temp -------- or simply happily calculating the money they made daily was worth the wounds. And they seem to even have convinced you that poor little McDonalds needs to be protected from septegenarian ladies who have to have skin grafts on their genitals and ask for help with their medical bills. Next time you get third degree burns on your genitals ------ and require skin grafts, debridement, etc ------- let me know how you feel about Stella Liebeck taking advantage of McDonalds.
Well, youch! So much for civil exchanges. Judith went from a rational discourse about the facts to an emotional tirade that ended with a cheerful little story about us getting third degree burns to our genitals! And a pleasant day to you, too, Judith! Our response to this out-of-the-blue drive-by insanity:
So let's see if we can recap here. You explained in an intelligent way why you disagreed with our position, we replied by explaining why we disagreed with your position, and now you've moved on to wishing genital burns on us. Here we thought we could agree to disagree like civilized people, but you had to go all "lowest common denominator" on us. Thanks a bunch.
The car was stopped? She was putting cream into it BEFORE the car moved? If that's true (and we didn't read that it was), then it sounds like she was simply clumsy, rather than incredibly stupid. Still, this in no way shifts the blame from her to McDonald's.
There had been HUNDREDS of complaints re: burns? Yes, SEVEN hundreds, to be precise. Out of 624 million cups per year sold. We thought we made that math abundantly clear.
McDonald's had already PAID FINES for burning people? No, McDonald's had already SETTLED in similar cases. There's a difference, and just because they settled once doesn't mean that they admitted culpability, or that they were in fact culpable. In addition, since we are not aware of the circumstances of each of those other instances, we can't say whether McDonald's was actually to blame in those cases. As we said in our first reply, there are certainly scenarios in which we would consider McDonald's to be at fault — the case in question, however, is not one of those scenarios.
They agreed the coffee at that temperature was in their own words unfit for consumption at that temperature? Yes, we read this in the summary. However, we tend to think that the summary presented this in a rather biased way. Admitting that the coffee was not fit for consumption at the moment it was dispensed fails to take into account the fact that many people don't even begin to drink their coffee until they get home (or to the office, or whatever). If you are implying that McDonald's was maliciously overheating their coffee in order to cause harm to their customers — and, correct us if we're wrong, but it certainly does appear that you are — then it is our duty to inform you that we think you are delusional. We have no particular love for McDonald's, but they have no rational reason for wanting to capriciously injure their clients. We're willing to bet that the reason they upped the heat was simply to ensure that the coffee would still be hot 15-20 minutes later when their customers reached their destinations. Sensationalizing this "admission" in the way that you have is, we have to say, just as bad as what you've rightly accused the media of doing in cases like this.
We're very happy that you have "ins" in both the legal and medical arenas. So do we, though, in spades...so it doesn't really impress us or cause us to change our opinions. And we don't dispute how awful it would be to receive third degree burns to the groin. However, it's important to set aside the emotional response of these terrible injuries when you have to assign blame, lest such emotional responses cloud your judgment. To us, it's abundantly clear that your judgment is exceedingly clouded when it comes to this case.
We also have to correct you here. This most certainly is an injury that you could get at home. The boiling point of water is 212 degrees — a good 32 degrees hotter than the McDonald's coffee. As such, it isn't at all difficult to get this kind of burn from liquids in your own home. In addition, the preparation of certain liquid substances (like caramel, for instance) allows the temperature of a given liquid to reach well above 212 degrees, further increasing the risk of burns. Of course, we doubt that as many as 700 people per year are injured by cooking caramel. But then again, not nearly as many people make their own caramel compared to the number who buy McDonald's coffee. See where we're going here?
Please explain the logic in your belief that McDonald's was maliciously cranking up the heat on their coffee. It makes no sense whatsoever. They were just counting their money from coffee sales? Why the heck do you think those sales would have gone down if they had lowered the temperature? This move in no way inflated their profits, so your hypothesis seems like nothing more than hot air and wishful thinking. And, as we said, they didn't burn "all those people" — they burned 0.0001% of their coffee-quaffing customers. And that's not saying that the burns were all bad, by the way. Many of them were likely minor burns that required nothing more than a pat of butter or some ice.
You continue with your emotional and completely baseless assertions when you state that we feel sorry for McDonald's. Where the heck do you get that from? We don't give a rat's ass about McDonald's. What we do care about is the sorry state of our legal system which allows people to sue others for their own mistakes. It doesn't matter at all to us who the defendant was in this case. For that matter, it also isn't important whether the "victim" was an eighty-year-old grandmother or a fifty-year-old pedophile. That's all immaterial. You, however, seem to want to paint this as the Big Bad Corporation v. Little Old Lady. As we said above, it's important to take emotion out of these equations in order to reach a valid conclusion. We're not saying that you can't hate McDonald's; but just set that hatred aside until you can make an impartial decision, and only then let it come back into the picture. Remember, Stella Liebeck didn't take advantage of McDonald's — she took advantage of a loophole in the legal system to make someone else pay for her own mistake. By extension, we aren't worried about McDonald's, we're worried about these loopholes in our legal system and the damage that they can do to anybody. That's the bottom line, Judith.
And we will do our best to think of you if we should ever receive third degree burns to our genitals, if and only if you, in return, promise to think fondly of us if someone should ever slap a frivolous lawsuit on you. As much as you might want to demonize McDonald's in this case, Judith, you need to realize that next time, you could be standing in their shoes.
The Two Percent Company.
Were Stella Liebeck's injuries horrific? Yes. Could they have been prevented if the coffee was somewhat cooler? Sure, but that's pretty much entirely irrelevant; we're willing to bet that Stella knew that coffee is hot, and we're also willing to bet that she routinely handled liquids hotter than her coffee (like, oh, every time she boiled some water). So all of this is beside the point. It's okay to be emotional about issues — hey, that's our bread and butter around here — but it's not okay to let emotion override reason when assessing an issue. This isn't about liking little old ladies, or about hating big, bad corporations. It's about applying logic, reason, and common sense to the legal system, and drawing a simple, consistent line between what is reasonable and what is unreasonable. Stella Liebeck knew that coffee was hot, and knew that it could burn her, and she decided to take a risk — a risk many of us take on a daily basis — by holding a cup of hot coffee in her lap. This particular time, the risk didn't pay off, and the result was terrible. Yeah, we get that. But that doesn't make it any less her fault.
Anyone may disagree with our facts (by showing us contradictory facts), call out our omissions (by pointing out and filling in our gaps), argue with our logic (by asserting alternative logic), or register opposition to our conclusions (by detailing alternative conclusions based on a logical analysis of the facts) — but appealing to emotion (or wishing us actual physical harm) the way that Judith did simply isn't an effective way to argue a point. Not with us, anyway.
Bad things happen to good people, and as sad as it may be, sometimes it's their own damned fault. If the world was a fair place, then there would always be some black-cloaked, mustache-twirling evil-doer who could take the blame (and foot the bills); but that's just not how it works. When good people suffer due to their own mistakes, and then refuse to accept the blame for their own fuck-ups, we have no problem calling a spade a spade. So McDonald's didn't owe Stella jack shit, and we will continue to use this case as a textbook example of a frivolous lawsuit.
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