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« Skeptics' Circle #51 The RantsAnother 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.

— • —
[  Filed under: % Government & Politics  % Greatest Hits  ]

Comments (38)

Slarty, 2007.01.06 (Sat) 12:35 [Link] »

I can't see exactly how McDonalds actually CAUSED the incident. Sure they sold her a very hot liquid but what happened after that was simply down to her.

If an employee had knocked the cup into her lap or she had slipped on a careless piece of trash which the management knew about and had not cleared then yes, even in the latter case they are somewhat to blame. But surely McD's are as much culpable as the manufacturer of my shoes are for if I trip over an untied lace.

Should they have to ensure that laces cannot come undone, or should I accept any responsibility for failing to tie them properly


Ammon, 2007.01.06 (Sat) 15:33 [Link] »

As far as I can tell, I completely agree with the Two Percent Company's stance on tort reform (and most other topics). I really enjoyed this rant, and enjoyed reading your discussion with Judith. However, as much as I've tried, I can't figure out where Judith "wishes third degree genital burns on" you. I see where she says:

Next time you get third degree burns on your genitals...let me know how you feel about Stella Liebeck taking advantage of McDonalds.

Is that what you're referring to? If so, that appears to be her attempt to change your mind by offering a new perspective on the incident. It sounds harmless to me, but maybe there's something I'm missing...?

I don't want to diminish your points in this rant -- like I said, I agree with your stance on tort reform wholeheartedly and enjoyed this rant. I'm just not seeing the part where she wishes you harm.

Darthcynic, 2007.01.06 (Sat) 15:45 [Link] »

Methinks she let her hatred of the corporation colour things just a tad, bad as they are they were not in the wrong this time.

Reform like the tort is needed and quick as the same 'blame anyone that can pay for your stupidity" idea is taking a good hold here.

Jason Spicer, 2007.01.07 (Sun) 00:44 [Link] »

Like Ammon, I didn't interpret Judith's response as being quite as unfriendly as TwoPercentCo did. Surely they've seen much more venemous posts. Was she overly emotional? Identifying too much with the burn victim? Perhaps. But that just means she's empathetic. Did it color her reason? Yeah, probably. I still don't see it as being an over-the-top post. But it wasn't directed at me, so...

I don't know that the McD's coffee case is all that much of a slam-dunk of frivolity. They had actually had and ignored a lot of complaints. My impression is that there was a bottom-line aspect to McD's indifference to the complaints. They were using coffee equipment that actually heated the coffee after brewing. You know, the kind of Bunn equipment that has the carafe sitting on a burner. Had they switched their equipment to thermal carafes, or some such, that kept the coffee no hotter than freshly-brewed, it would have been cooler. Of course, that would cost Mcd's quite a lot of money to retrofit all it's restaurants. Maybe even more than settling the occasional burn complaint.

I think that kind of financial-only lens is what people find offensive about the big corporations' approach to this sort of thing. It's like the airlines' deciding not do do any retrofit that costs more than the $2Msettlement/death * #LikelyDeaths if they don't fix it.

So was Ms Liebeck at fault? Yup. Was McDonald's indifferent? Yup. Both of those things matter in our tort system, and it's up to a jury to decide how much each matters. And I don't think it's all that easy to make that call, even for reasonable people. What's reasonable isn't always a clear, bright line. For instance, at what percentage of burns per coffee sold would you want McD's to change their coffee dispensing technology? One in a million may not be a big deal, but what if it were one in a hundred? No other facts changed, just the percentage. Wouldn't you think that was a little too much carnage? Would it really be all that important if each person were also at fault for spilling the coffee on themselves?

Anyway, the real crime in this case is that coffee sitting on a burner after brewing gets really disgusting really fast. But if that ever becomes litigable, I'll be right there with you asking for tort reform.

borealys, 2007.01.07 (Sun) 14:28 [Link] »

Okay, only a bit off-topic here, but... a pat of butter on a burn?? That's only going to make it worse!

PoolGuy, 2007.01.07 (Sun) 21:46 [Link] »

I think I'm getting close to the classical definition of splitting hairs here, but I think I side with Jason on this. Based on the facts in evidence, McDonald's has certainly shown indifference in the matter. I also agree that the cause of the injury was 100% due to Stella's actions. I would propose a third alternative, although I do not know the legal profession enough to know if this alternative actually exists currently.

Since Mcdonald's had received prior complaints about burns from their coffee, regardless of their low percentage vis-a-vis total sales, and since they had in some of these cases settled with the complainers in a financial manner, and since during this time (whether one year or five years or whatever) they had not altered the temperature of their coffee to lessen or eliminate the possibility of burns (even in the case of 100% fault by the consumer) I would think that someone (anyone?) should be able to sue McDonald's for indifference to the potential pain and suffering they will impose in the future (based on that percentage of existing complaints). I don't know what legal form of indifference this would be (callous? malicious? legal?), but this would separate McDonald's actions from the specific (they certainly did not want any harm to come to Stella in particular) to the general (their own reports show that harm comes to their customers due to hot coffee spills in whatever small percentage).

I guess I'm taking this a step beyond personal responsibility (Stella was the only one responsible for her accident) and including corporate responsibility (McDonald's, by their own reports, knew that the temperature of their coffee was causing harm to some of their customers, and, QED, lowering the temperature of the coffee would reduce the incidence of this harm

Ian B Gibson, 2007.01.07 (Sun) 22:35 [Link] »

Change the entry title - she didn't wish third degree burns on you. It is a distortion on your part for you to say that she did say this.

She asked you to imagine yourself in the situation in question. That's all. It's fine to disagree with her, but you're attacking a straw woman in this case.

Ian B Gibson, 2007.01.07 (Sun) 22:38 [Link] »

There are also plenty (ie. millions) of clearcut cases of frivolous lawsuits you could have chosen to give a rightful skewering of. This wasn't really one of them - there's something to be said for both sides.

Phony Montana, 2007.01.08 (Mon) 07:17 [Link] »

A defendant's indifference is certainly NOT a factor in the tort law of any of the common or civil legal regimes. It is based on notions of foreseeability and a unique legal notion of causality which is a much limited version of true factual causality. Clearly McDonalds has failed to cause the injury here. Do hardware stores label butchers knives sharp? No, we know they're sharp so we dont brandish them whilst in transit or balance them between our legs. Everyone knows the cliche that "the law is blind". But that means it upholds the rights of the poorest man off the street equally with the greediest mega-corporation. There was no old lady here and no fast food giant (in the strictest sense), just two legal entities who needed the law to spell out their respective entitlements. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the law failed to do that judiciously or in a manner consistent with its precendents. Therefore frivolous is generous, this could easily be called a miscarriage of justice.

Phony Montana, 2007.01.08 (Mon) 07:24 [Link] »

* precedents * - apologies, typo

Lord Runolfr, 2007.01.08 (Mon) 12:35 [Link] »

Without getting into who's at fault here, I think a large part of the problem with outrageous punitive damage awards is the payment of those awards to the plaintiff.

At most, the damage to Stella Liebeck consists of her medical bills and maybe some "pain and suffering", but I don't see that she's entitled to one dime of punitive damages. "Punitive" damages are assessed to "punish" the wrongdoer, not reward the victim. If none of the punitive damages assessed by a jury go to the plaintiff (they go to a public defenders fund, for example), then people have far less incentive to sue frivolously.

PoolGuy, 2007.01.08 (Mon) 15:54 [Link] »

Phony -
I think I understand your point, and it's well taken. Does your understanding of the issue include any provision for giving weight to subjective decisions that are made with indifference to foreseeable pain and suffering?

In other words, a manufacturer who made a knife dull enough to preclude accidental cuts would presumably sell approximately 0 of those knives because they would not perform their mission, i.e. - cut things.

However, serving coffee at 150 degrees vs. 190 degrees would presumably result in no effect on sales because either temperature is too hot to immediately drink. The only difference in 190 degree coffee is that is that it increases the possibility and severity of damage if a mistake does happen. Or, in this case, does TPC's point of serving the coffee at 190 degrees so that it is still hot when you get to your destination hold any sway?

Personally, I always put ice in my coffee such that it is at a comfortable drinking temperature for me as soon as I pay for it.

The Two Percent Company, 2007.01.08 (Mon) 18:26 [Link] »

We had a feeling that this post would generate some interesting discussions, which is exactly why we wrote it. Remember that before Judith's e-mail, we had only the vaguest of references to this case. As a result of her messages, as well as your comments, we now have a very comprehensive understanding of the case. All of the research we've conducted only changes our position in one way — it solidifies our opinion that this case is a textbook example of a frivolous lawsuit, and that Stella Liebeck was 100% responsible for her own injuries.

But let's take the arguments we've seen one at a time:

  • The title of the Rant: "In Which a Reader Wishes Third Degree Genital Burns On Us"

    Were we engaging in a little hyperbole when we wrote the title of this post? Absolutely. But there is no doubt in our minds what the intent of Judith's statment was. When someone says anything along the lines of "When you get hurt because you didn't listen to what I said, don't come crying to me," what they mean is "You'll get exactly what you deserve one day for not heeding what I just told you." To native speakers of English, that is pretty much the sole commonly understood meaning of such a statement. It isn't a wish for harm, per se, but rather an admonishment that if a particular form of harm does befall us, we'll deserve it. Now factor in the context of Judith's statement: look at the difference between her first e-mail — which was a clear, concise message full of facts and figures — and her second e-mail, which employed ALL CAPS exclamatories, inflammatory and curt sentences, and so forth. It seems clear that Judith was quite upset with us (and McDonald's, for that matter) in her second e-mail — and it's clear that it was precisely her intent to be spiteful. She was pissed off at us, and we took her statement precisely the way she intended it.

    Now, that said, are we "frightened" by this "threat"? Hell, no. We don't feel "threatened," and we know that this isn't an actual threat of harm. We feel, frankly, quite bemused that someone would even think that way when trying to discuss something rationally; that they would resort to parental scare tactics instead of logical arguments. So it's not that we're "offended" or "worried" by Judith's statement, it's simply that we're highly confident that she was being an incredibly rude and irrational bitch when she wrote it.

    To sum up, yes we engaged in a little hyperbole as a joke, no she didn't actually say that she wishes us harm, yes we realize that this is not a real threat, but at the end of the day, we are extremely confident that we interpreted her statement in the manner in which it was intended. To be clear, what she was saying was "Someday, when you get badly burned by coffee, you'll deserve it."

    Finally, we disagree entirely that we are attacking a straw man (or woman, as the case may be). It is important to note that the title of the Rant in no way represents our arguments in this post. The supposition inherent in the title (which was intended to be both funny and informative) has nothing whatsoever to do with our presentation of her arguments, nor are we arguing against a position that is established upon the foundation of her wishing us genital burns. That would be a straw man, and we're a bit surprised that anyone would see a straw man in what we actually did. Nor are we saying that since Judith wished us harm, she is therefore wrong about the case in question. If we were saying that, we would be engaging in an ad hominem by attacking the person instead of her arguments. But that isn't what we're doing. We used the notion that Judith was "wishing us harm" in order to make a point to Judith — that she was way too emotional about this case, and that it was affecting her judgement. Note that the phrase first appeared in our final response to her, and we later used it as the title of the Rant for two basic reasons: one, because we found it quite humorous even devoid of context; and two, because we had used it to make a point with Judith. But the fact remains: it is in no way a straw man argument (or an ad hominem argument for that matter) because it is not an argument at all.

  • McDonald's had actually had and ignored a lot of complaints
  • Let's take this one in two parts. First, let's address the complaints themselves and forget the numbers. Was McDonald's aware that people had been burnt by their coffee before this incident happened? Yes. Did they lower the temperature of their coffee as a result? No. Does that make them liable for this injury? Not in any way at all. Getting complaints about something in no way means that you are required to listen to those complaints. Hell, we get tons of complaints about what we write, and you'd better believe that we ignore the lion's share of them. And rightfully so. If a complaint is without merit, then it should be ignored. So why would McDonald's be required to listen to a small portion of their patrons' complaints? Because the coffee was, in someone's opinion, too hot? Too hot for what? Not too hot for someone who wants to drive home before they drink it fifteen minutes later. Not too hot for someone bringing coffee back to the office for four people. McDonald's clearly had a reason to make their coffee this hot — it wasn't "indifference" and it certainly wasn't "malicious." And since they later lowered the temperature of their coffee without retrofitting all of their stores, it seems that the expense of making such a change wasn't an issue either. Let's also not overlook the fact that their "low" temperature coffee (at 158 degrees) is still very much capable of causing severe burns. Would they still be at fault if this "cooler" coffee burned someone in the same manner that their "hot" coffee burned Stella Liebeck? Why or why not? You end up in very hazy territory if you try to legally define what is or is not an acceptable temperature for a food item, and in our opinion, that entire line of reasoning is nonsensical.

    Let's look at an example here (we swear we came up with this before Pool Guy mentioned knives). What a lot of people are essentially saying is that if someone makes a sharper knife, and people who cut themselves with it then complain about it, then the knife maker is liable unless they make their knife more dull. Keep in mind that, all the while, other people are quite happy with their sharper knives, and those people aren't injuring themselves. Ah, you say, but there is a reason to make a knife sharper — in order to cut better! But, we reply, there is also a reason (at least one — see below) to make coffee hotter — so that it stays hot during transit. There is no difference between these scenarios, and in both cases, the people who injured themselves are the ones who are responsible. In addition, as Pool Guy points out, it is likely that the duller knives will not sell nearly as well as the sharper ones. The same could be true of "hot" versus "cool" coffee.

    Now let's look at the numbers. The question arises: How many burn incidents would it take for McDonald's to be legitimately liable? Keep in mind that we only brought up numbers because Judith kept harping on them ("hundreds of reports"), deliberately exaggerating their impact to falsely support her point, and we were pointing out how statistically insignificant the numbers actually were. (Incidentally, it turns out that our numbers were incorrect, too — because the 700 burn incidents actually took place over the course of ten years! That means that the percentage is even lower than we calculated, as we suspected.) But the numbers are largely irrelevant to our point — any attempt to draw a "line" beyond which McDonald's is responsible is, quite simply, a red herring...because, all other factors remaining the same, no larger number of burn incidents would make McDonald's liable. What a larger percentage of burns would do would be to stir us to reexamine the facts.

    Let's say that 1% of people were reporting being burned by McDonald's coffee. That's a high number, and it could be that this large number of injuries may not be a simple matter of misfortune, clumsiness, and/or stupidity. But simply assuming that the temperature of the coffee is the reason for such a high number would be incorrect. It's just a fact: statistical significance like this indicates correlation, not causation. Where correlation exists, we should look at the incidents to see if there was a hidden factor that had been previously overlooked — defective cups, poorly-attached lids...something. In other words, look for the causation. However — and this is the important bit — if our search revealed no additional evidence of culpability, then even at a 10% or (damn!) a 20% burn rate, McDonald's would still not be at fault.

  • There are plenty of clearcut cases of frivolous lawsuits, and this wasn't really one of them
  • We disagree wholeheartedly, for the reasons we outlined to Judith, the reasons we outlined above, and the reasons that Phony Montana listed. This is a perfect example of a frivolous lawsuit. In fact, the emotional pitfall of the Little Old Lady vs. the Big, Bad Corporation that exists in this case makes it such a perfect example because this woman likely won for that exact emotionally-charged reason. There's something to be said for both sides? What exactly is there to be said for Stella Liebeck? She made a clumsy mistake that caused her great personal harm. And still, after all is said and done, it was her own fault. The jury decided that she was 20% at fault. To us it's abundantly clear that she was 100% at fault. Nothing presented thus far changes that in the least, and we highly doubt any of the facts of this case would.

  • Punitive damages should not be awarded to the plaintiffs
  • Well, damn, that sounds like a great idea to us! Let actual damages (medical bills and such) and pain-and-suffering damages be paid to the plaintiffs, but have punitive damages be paid to some other entity that benefits the public. Punitive damages — by definition — should be a punishment to the defendant, not a reward to the plaintiff. In this case, Stella did receive a large punitive award (which was reduced by the judge to about a half a million; the final settlement was sealed). Granted that she initially sought only to have her actual damages reimbursed, so this case may not be the flagbearer for this particular type of reform, but we agree that changing the system in this manner could prove to be quite effective.

  • [A] pat of butter on a burn?? That's only going to make it worse!
  • That was kind of meant as a throwaway line, but since it's on the table, we may as well lay it out. Actually, there's no doubt that butter soothes the pain from a minor burn, and it absolutely doesn't make the pain of a burn worse. The argument against using it is that it can increase the chance of infection. However, with a minor burn, that chance seems pretty low to us, especially if you use butter for initial soothing, and then run the burn under cool water for a while both to wash off the butter and to continue to soothe the burn. We certainly aren't recommending that anyone ignore medical advice or that anyone use butter to soothe burns, but it does work to relieve pain in some cases, and it can be quite useful. Let's look at Steve's burn as an example. He actually did use butter to soothe his burns for three reasons: first, the burns were minor and the skin wasn't broken; second, there was butter very close at hand (after all, he had been cooking with it); and third, due to the placement of the burns on his arms, they weren't easy to run under the faucet, and they were impossible to run under the water all at once. So he used butter for initial pain relief, then jumped in the shower to get cool water onto all of the burns. As a note, ice also isn't recommended because it could cause freezing of the already damaged tissues. The medically-approved treatment is running the burn(s) under cold water.

Back to the basics, here: as far as we're concerned, if someone spills coffee on himself and there are no mitigating factors that helped to cause the spill — and that certainly seems to be the situation with Stella Liebeck — then the person who spilled the coffee is 100% at fault for his own mistake. The temperature of the coffee, and how it got that way, simply shouldn't enter into the equation. Look at the example of Steve at the start of this Rant: Steve did this to himself, and it doesn't matter who made the pot, the stove, or the butter, who supplied the water, or who taught him how to cook. Steve knew that stoves make things hot, and that hot liquids could burn him. He chose to take a "risk" anyway by melting butter in a pot. Like ordering hot coffee, it's a common risk that many people take every day, but this time, it caused Steve harm. There is no doubt in our minds that Steve caused his injuries himself, the same way that Stella Liebeck did (cause her own injuries...not Steve's). Nobody created a dangerous situation for Stella or Steve either maliciously or negligently, and both hot coffee and melted butter are encountered with absurdly high frequency without causing burns. So any injuries sustained are just an unhappy accident...which sure sucks, but there you have it. Just because McDonald's — or any other establishment — prepared the coffee in no way makes them culpable for Stella spilling it on herself.

People like hot coffee; they buy it in massive numbers every single day in all of Western civilization. McDonald's was serving that demand. The temperature of the coffee had nothing to do with anything other than customer demand. Is this demand genuine? You'd better believe it. The National Coffee Association of the USA states the following (and the emphasis is theirs, not ours):

Your brewer should maintain a water temperature between 195 - 205 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal extraction. Colder water will result in flat, underextracted coffee while water that is too hot will also cause a loss of quality in the taste of the coffee.


Brewed coffee begins to lose its optimal taste moments after brewing so only brew as much coffee as will be consumed immediately. If it will be a few minutes before it will be served, the temperature should be maintained at 180 - 185 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you don't know who the bloody heck the National Coffee Association of the USA is, don't worry — neither did we. Luckily, they aren't the only ones who are quoting these figures. Check out the following paragraph from Answers.com, and feel free to follow the links to each of the sites like we did:

Stella Liebeck's attorney argued that coffee should never be served hotter than 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius), and that a number of other establishments served coffee at a substantially lower temperature than McDonald's. Despite this claim, home and commercial coffee makers often reach comparable temperatures. For example, Bunn [1] mentions "the ideal brewing temperature of approximately 200°", and [2] mentions "water at 200° Fahrenheit (the ideal temperature)". Cuisinart mentions for at least one of their coffeemakers [3] that "After brewing, the heater plate will keep the coffee at about 180°-185°F".

What more is there to say? Not only was McDonald's brewing and maintaining their coffee at a commonly accepted temperature, the assertion made by Judith in her second message that "this is not a wound you could give yourself from a coffee pot at home" is demonstrably false. So even if you do think that the temperature of the coffee was relevant to this issue (which we do not), we simply can't comprehend how anyone could reasonably believe that McDonald's did anything wrong here, let alone something malicious or criminally indifferent. McDonald's was complying with widespread industry standards for coffee brewing and storage, they were responding to a market demand for hot coffee that stayed hot during transit, and there was nothing malicious or negligent about what they were doing. Not only was it wrong for them to lose this case, we're astounded and disgusted that punitive damages could possibly have been awarded, given that such awards require "willful, wanton, reckless or malicious conduct" which clearly did not exist here. Phony Montana is right — using the term "frivolous" to describe this lawsuit is generous. It is a miscarriage of justice.

It is common knowledge that hot coffee can burn you, and that you shouldn't go around spilling hot coffee on yourself. Therefore, when it happens, unless someone or something else contributed to the actual act of spilling the coffee — by pushing you, or by giving you a defective cup or lid, or what-have-you — it's an accident; and tough luck, but it's your own damn fault. That has been and still is the bottom line for us in this case.

borealys, 2007.01.08 (Mon) 21:16 [Link] »

Actually, if I'm recalling my first aid training correctly, there is a second argument against using butter or any other greasy substance on a burn, which is that it can trap in the heat, causing greater tissue damage than there would otherwise be. It's certainly possible that, in the case of a minor burn, and if someone jumped into a cool shower within a couple of minutes, the effect would negligible and the pain relief coming from the cool temperature of the butter could be considered worth the risk. But I want to point out that I wasn't referring to the effects of butter on the pain. I was referring to actual tissue damage.

(Not intending to make a fuss over what was obviously an unimportant aside... outdated first aid information is just a pet peeve of mine.)

Jason Spicer, 2007.01.09 (Tue) 00:43 [Link] »

Whether McDonald's lost revenue by serving their coffee at a cooler, less desirable temperature or lost money thru retrofit expenses (are you sure they didn't have to spend money to do this? I don't think most restaurant coffee equipment has a thermostat), there was definitely a financial consideration on their part. The only reason to bring it up is that it's a potential motivation for them to not make any changes to their coffee-serving practices. It's also entirely possible that they just didn't think this was that big a deal, and given the numbers you quote, that probably isn't unreasonable.

A minor nit concerns the knife analogy--sharper knives are actually safer because they require less force to get them to do what you want them to do. But I take the point. (Heh, heh. I crack me up.)

I also like the idea of punitive damages going to the state, rather than the victim. The victim should be made whole, not fabulously wealthy. Obviously, assuming the defendant was at fault.

I'll defer to the research and experience of the National Coffee Association of the USA. I knew that the temperature thru the grounds was in the neighborhood of 200 degrees, but I thought it was cooler than 180 degrees as it poured into the carafe. The fact that the burner keeps the coffee at 180 degrees doesn't surprise me, though.

I was under the impression that McDonald's served their coffee hotter than the competition. If that were true, then there would be a case against McDonald's specifically on the grounds (heh, I'm on a roll) that their coffee was more dangerous than everybody else's, and a 20 degree difference does matter in terms of burn severity and quickness.

I'll agree that this is an edge case, but I still don't think it's prima facie obvious that this is a frivolous case. The fact that we spent so much time arguing the finer points suggests that it could just as well be heard by a jury. For a case to count as frivolous, the judge would have to be able to say there were no facts worth exploring at trial--that reasonable people would be very unlikely to come to different conclusions.

And keep in mind that the auto industry didn't replace plate glass windshields with safety glass until they were sued into taking that action. People would accidentally crash perfectly good (non-defective) cars into solid objects and cut themselves to ribbons, thru no fault of the manufacturer. Hot coffee isn't as bad, but I think the analogy holds (only difference being that people never traditionally brewed their own cars at home to the same standard). And I think the case against plate glass windshields was not frivolous. (See seat belts for another example.)

The Two Percent Company, 2007.01.09 (Tue) 02:05 [Link] »

Your point is well taken, borealys; thanks for taking the time to comment on this. We can certainly relate to pet peeves, and we can also certainly understand wanting to put a fine point on what could be construed as improper medical information. We certainly didn't intend to directly recommend butter as a first aid measure for burns, minor or otherwise, and we appreciate your desire to get the facts straight.

We would concur that cool water is the best course of action for even relatively minor burns, and that using butter, just like ointments — which are also contraindicated in the case of burns — is not an ideal choice.

RRyan, 2007.01.09 (Tue) 11:07 [Link] »

The bitch spilled coffee on herself. No argument I've read can refute that.

Re: punitive damages going to the state -

I don't know about that. If some asshole rear ends me, is it enough that they just pay for the damages?

It's like when someone bums a cig and offers you a quarter; yes, it replaces the cost of the cig, but not the effort to replace it.

I dunno if there are other damages to cover stuff like this, I stoopid too. I got called for jury duty and tried to get called up (Your Rockstar's job paid regular wage + state of NE paid $45 a day) but was rejected...must've been the Metallica T-shirt.

Infophile, 2007.01.09 (Tue) 17:20 [Link] »

Ryan - That's what the pain and suffering part is for. In a case like this, it comes in an additional part to compensate you for the... pain and suffering. In your metaphor, it compensates your effort to replace the cig.

Punitive damages are something else. Their intention is solely to punish the defendant. Your medical expenses have been covered, and you've been reimbursed for your pain and suffering. Why is their fine for their bad behavior also going to you?

Badger3k, 2007.01.10 (Wed) 05:26 [Link] »

Beautiful, simply beautiful. This McDonalds case is different than the one where the woman had a history of suing businesses like this, is that correct? I heard something about that involving coffee (I think, it's been a while).

Anyway, I've nearly suffered burns from hot soup (luckily only reddened skin under my clothes, thanks to a puupy dog, who was uninjured, of course), and also burned my hand from the hot rack in the stove - can I sue my stove manufacturer since I accidentaly touched my hand to the rack when removing food? I still have the scar on my hand, and apparently always will. Can I make millions off being clumsy?

What ever happened to personal responsibility?

Akusai, 2007.01.10 (Wed) 09:06 [Link] »

If I had the immoral wherewithal to make money from being clumsy, I'd be richer than Bill Gates. Watch out, stove and oven manufacturers, refrigerator manufacturers, makers of pots, pans, and cookie sheets, knife makers, fork makers, bowl and plate makers, manufacturers of all forms of seating, GM, Toyota, Ford, the Indiana Highway Department, every pizza shop that ever sold me a pizza, CityBus, Dell Computers, the US Postal service, the County of Tippecanoe, manufacturers of baseballs and baseball bats, hockey equipment, ice skates, and all the youth sports authorities under which I played...I'm coming for all of you.

I hurt myself a lot.

RRyan, 2007.01.10 (Wed) 10:00 [Link] »

Yeah, I looked up exactly what punitive damages are. I have no idea why they would go to the plaintiff.

I haven't taken a civics class since my Freshman year of high school...14 years ago...

The Two Percent Company, 2007.01.10 (Wed) 12:23 [Link] »

Yes, we can have (and are having) an interesting discussion about the case, but at the end of the day, as far as we're concerned, Stella Liebeck really had no legitimate case whatsoever. Don't get us wrong, Jason — we can see how reasonable people can disagree about whether a jury should have heard this case, or whether it should have been tossed out as frivolous. There are, in fact, rational points on both sides of that argument, and we think your disagreement with us seems to now be pretty much focused on this one aspect of the case. What we cannot see is how any reasonable person could examine the facts of the case and still state that Stella was not 100% at fault (an argument that we don't think you're making, by the way).

If your argument is that the case had enough interesting tidbits to warrant a jury trial, we don't think you're being at all unreasonable. We must admit that a large part of our problem in that regard is that we just don't have much faith in a "jury of peers" (read: "jury of idiots") charged by our government with making a correct and lawful decision without emotional baggage getting in the way. But yes — a jury trial is meant to discuss and investigate the facts, and determine culpability. That's a good thing, and we have no problem with that. What we have a problem with, in this case, is the utterly ludicrous verdict they returned. Because, seriously, if someone is arguing that Stella was not at fault (as Judith argued), or even worse that the punitive damages against McDonald's were warranted (as Judith seems to have argued), then in our opinion, they're just not being rational about it.

From our perspective, the case should have been tossed before it ever made it to the courtroom. The fact that it wasn't, though, isn't the real problem. The fact that Stella Liebeck won her case is the real problem.

To us, even if McDonald's served their coffee hotter than the standard temperature range, it still wouldn't matter; to us, the temperature of the coffee, like McDonald's preparation of it, their storage of it, and their selling of it, is completely immaterial. For us to concede that the temperature was material to the case, McDonald's would have had to go to an absurd extreme that quite transcends the label "too hot" — like if they superheated their coffee, which then, when it was bumped or when sugar was added or when it was stirred, suddenly and violently boiled in an explosive way. That would be an example of the temperature of the coffee actually contributing to the cause of the incident. In addition, poor little Stella could hardly be expected to know not to bump or sweeten or stir her coffee, as these are common activities that do not normally carry great risk on their own. McDonald's would certainly be at fault if this were the case, because their actions would have directly contributed to the actual incident of spilling the coffee...but this wasn't the case. Anything less than "superheated" (or something else equally far out there) is just a temperature variation; and to us, that falls under the "everyone knows that coffee is hot, and that hot things burn" header.

Ryan sums up our feeling quite well when he says:

The bitch spilled coffee on herself. No argument I've read can refute that.

To us, that is absolutely the bottom line. All the rest is window dressing. Would we be having this discussion if Stella had spilled a nice cold McDonald's Coca-Cola on herself? Of course not. Because Stella and the rest of us know damn well that spilling something on yourself is your own damn fault, and no case would ever have been brought. The temperature of the coffee — which Stella was aware of, and which was quite likely why she bought coffee in the first place — is a completely irrelevant factor to the determination of culpability for the spill. Again, you wouldn't sue a knife company because you accidentally sliced off your own legs, no matter how sharp (or dull, as the case may be) the knife was. Or, if you did, you wouldn't have a leg to stand on. (Sorry, that was unforgivable. Even the pun gods groaned. Blame Jason for getting us in the mood for that one — though good luck proving he's culpable.)

Ryan, as Infophile pointed out, pain and suffering covers the "extra" damages to which you're referring (such as the suffering one might experience over a permanently lost cigarette). So under the plan outlined by Lord Runolfr, actual victims can still be compensated for their losses, both tangible and intangible, but without the possible lure of millions in punitive damages temptingly inviting all those frivolous cases.

Regarding windshield reform, we're not familiar with the case(s) that spurred that change (and we're a little too busy to do the research at the moment), but we certainly feel that lawsuits should be examined for merit on a case-by-case basis. Not all lawsuits are bad — many are invaluable tools, not only for victims to recoup actual damages, but also to change society for the better — but when we see people being rewarded for their own fuck-ups, like Stella Liebeck, it really pushes our buttons.

As an aside, the fact that a great number of lawsuits are perfectly valid and worthy of consideration is the reason that we do not support caps on pain and suffering damages (which, as we recall, was part of the Bush administration's plan for tort reform). We agree that the system needs to be reformed, but limiting the amount of money that an actual victim can recoup for a loss is not the way to do it.

The Two Percent Company, 2007.01.10 (Wed) 13:35 [Link] »

Badger3k — we aren't aware of any data that suggests that Stella Liebeck was a habitual ambulance chaser. In fact, she appears to have initially asked only to have her medical bills reimbursed, and only sued for more when McDonald's refused. Not that this fact exonerates her in any way, but it at least makes it appear that she wasn't "fishing" for a lawsuit.

Akusai — okay, seriously, you need to be strapped down and kept safe from yourself. Just kidding! Actually, your list is probably no different from most of the rest of us. (Well, not that different. Though, damn.) We all do clumsy and/or stupid things that cause harm to ourselves. And we all try to blame someone else from time to time, in the emotional heat of the moment (Jeff tends to have rather one-sided shouting matches with the inanimate objects that "caused" his problems before he settles down). The difference between the "good guys" and the "bad guys" is whether emotion wins out, causing us to file ridiculous lawsuits, or whether reason prevails and we admit the truth — that it was our own damned fault.

Ryan — no need to explain why you aren't up on tort law. Frankly, we don't ever recall our high school civics teacher explaining that to us in the first place. But once you understand what the different damages were designed for, it does seem pretty obvious that punitive damages should certainly not be going to the plaintiffs. Odd, isn't it?

ebohlman, 2007.01.10 (Wed) 17:29 [Link] »

What I always found most noteworthy about this case is that it would never have happened in any country that had "socialized medicine" because she'd never have had $30000 in medical bills in the first place (I'm wondering if there was an insurer who was refusing to pay on the grounds that they believed she could collect from McDonald's).

Darthcynic, 2007.01.10 (Wed) 18:55 [Link] »

Nah, I live in one of those countries with socialised health services and we still get gobshites like her suing for medical costs and emotional damages for their own frack-ups. You see whilst we may have socialised medicine, its slow and oft of poor standard whereas private healthcare is generally much faster and better.

Ford, 2007.01.14 (Sun) 13:21 [Link] »

I'm going to have to disagree with your bottom line. I don't think the case was just about who caused the accident, it's about the severity of the consequences. If I kick my computer and the damn thing goes off like a grenade, taking my leg off in the process, would you say that it was 100% my fault? Yeah, I kicked the computer. Yes, I might've been aware that kicking the computer would fuck things up. But the fact that the fucker was made with volatile parts that explode is not a reasonable consequence to be expected and is the damn manufacturer's fault. I don't think 3rd degree burns in 2 seconds from an easily available to all ages for cheap substance is a reasonable consequence of dropping a drink.

Now, granted people should know coffee is hot, but I would hope people such as you wouldn't oversimplify things with "coffee is hot, duh". You should know the devil is in the damn details. 'Hot' can be damn 10,000,000 degrees or 190 degrees. One will burn you in a matter of seconds, the other will vaporize you in a matter of nanoseconds. Now, I don't know much about coffee, I don't know if the temperature was unusual or not for coffee, I'm not really commenting on whether or not the case against Mcd was completely justified, I'm merely arguing against your particular reasoning as to why it isn't justified. If the coffee was unusually hot, Mcd should know that sometimes people have accidents and try to minimize the damage done to a reasonable amount. Just like with the glass windshield scenerio mentioned above. They had to know that sometimes people get in wrecks with non defective cars (the driving components that is, not the peripheral stuff like the windshield) and provide adequate safety for the consumer, or at least warn them against what might not be obvious (if you get in a wreck of over 20 mph, your ass will be cut to ribbons because this glass is shitty and you don't have any way of restraining your body, still wanna ride?). Now I'm sure the old lady knew that if she spilled coffee in her lap she would get burned a little, just like I know if I kick my computer I might fuck up a few things and hurt my big toe. But if she had known she would melt like the wicked fucking witch of the west if she spilled the stuff on herself, I doubt she would've even bought the shit in the first place. Just like if I'd known kicking my computer would result in the complete annihalation of the computer, structural damage to my house, permanent hearing loss, and the loss of my kickin' foot, I would never touch the fucker.

My bottom line is this; if I kick my computer and have to get the motherboard replaced, that's my own damn fault, I would know that based on just living in the physical universe, when I do something like that to that specific object, it is to be expected you might fuck it up. If I kick my computer and lose a leg and hearing, your ass is mine.

By the way, I'm not actually ranting about my exploding computer, reading back on my comment, it looks as if I'm going on a tirade about my nitroglycerin packed pc.

The Two Percent Company, 2007.01.14 (Sun) 15:52 [Link] »

We're a little confused, here, Ford. Either you agree with us, but just didn't read all of our comments above, or your argument isn't making any sense. You seem to be painting a picture of the exact "over the top" scenario that we already mentioned with both your exploding computer and 10,000,000-degree coffee analogies. If you didn't read our comment about this, we'd wager that, once you do read it, you will agree with us. If you did read that particular comment, then we have to admit that we're at a bit of a loss as to what point you're trying to make.

As we said above, if the temperature of the coffee had somehow altered the properties of the coffee such that it behaved in a way that was unexpected for coffee, then we would agree that McDonald's was at least partly at fault. The example we gave was superheating the coffee such that it was beyond 212 degrees, but didn't boil until it was bumped, or stirred, or sugar was added, at which time it boiled explosively, causing a spill and a burn. That, we readily agree, is not recognized as a usual property of coffee, and as such, McDonald's would have to take some (or perhaps even all) of the blame. To us, our absurd scenario is exactly like the intentionally absurd scenarios that you used as your examples. (Differing only slightly in that your 10 million degrees would, indeed, vaporize the coffee drinker instantly — assuming McDonald's was even capable of producing, containing and selling it!)

So when you say that there are limits beyond which McDonald's would be responsible, we agree completely, but those limits would have to go way beyond a simple "higher temperature" to something quite unbelievable and completely unexpected (like superheating coffee, or manufacturing computers with explosive parts — though in our opinion it wouldn't even have to go so far as vaporization temperatures several orders of magnitude higher than the reality). And, clearly, none of that happened here. All three of these are also somewhat nonsensical scenarios, as we're sure you'd agree, which is why these specific caveats weren't called out in our initial post — they just abandon reality for a bit to make a hypothetical point. But to restate that portion of our bottom line to take into account all of our comments above: barring any effects of temperature changes that materially alter the properties of the coffee such that it behaves in a decidedly uncoffee-like way, simple temperature variations are completely immaterial to determining who is at fault in this scenario. You point out that:

Now, I don't know much about coffee, I don't know if the temperature was unusual or not for coffee, I'm not really commenting on whether or not the case against Mcd was completely justified, I'm merely arguing against your particular reasoning as to why it isn't justified.

As we've made clear above, with plenty of citations, McDonald's was doing nothing unusual in the production, storage, or sale of their coffee with regard to temperature. In fact, they kept their coffee somewhat below the average "recommended" temperature for brewing, maintaining, serving and consuming coffee. This not only makes Stella's particular case against McDonald's completely unjustified, it also backs up our arguments as to why it is unjustified — they really just didn't do anything out of the ordinary. We're sure you'd agree that we can't hold the entire coffee-making industry responsible for the fact that people like to drink coffee hot enough that it can burn you.

You also state that McDonald's has to understand that people sometimes have accidents, and they have to minimize the damage that their products cause in those scenarios. Once again, other than the absurd scenarios described above, we disagree. We can't expect everyone to idiot-proof the world to minimize the damage that results from people causing harm to themselves. We might as well all live in rubber rooms, wearing paper gowns and eating without utensils, in the very slippery slope that such an argument would lead to. For example, 158-degree coffee can also cause third degree burns, so clearly we can't allow that temperature, either. Guess we'll have to knock it down to room temperature to be completely safe. Only at that temperature, it's impossible to even brew coffee, so that means that coffee is no longer able to be produced, sold, or consumed. Oh, well, there goes the most popular hot drink in Western civilization. And let's not even get into power tools, or gasoline, or explosives. We all deal with dangerous things quite commonly in our daily lives, and it's our own responsibility either to use them safely or to choose not to use them at all.

You say:

My bottom line is this; if I kick my computer and have to get the motherboard replaced, that's my own damn fault, I would know that based on just living in the physical universe, when I do something like that to that specific object, it is to be expected you might fuck it up. If I kick my computer and lose a leg and hearing, your ass is mine.

We agree completely, as our comment above indicates. There's no way that any reasonable person would expect their computer to explode, even if they drop-kick it across the room wearing steel-toed boots. A tendency to explode simply isn't a "recognized property of a computer." But, as you indicate, that computers are somewhat fragile and somewhat hard and heavy are well-known properties of computers, and if your drop-kick results in breakage to both the computer and your big toe, then that's your own damned fault. Point being, we will continue to say "coffee is hot, duh," and "computers are heavy, hard, and fragile, duh" in much the same way that we wouldn't say "computers blow up when you kick them, duh." What we don't understand is why you're disagreeing with us when you seem to be saying pretty much the same thing.

With all the facts in evidence — including the typical properties of coffee, the publicized recommendations for the temperature of coffee, and McDonald's general compliance with these standard recommendations — our bottom line remains that it is common knowledge that coffee is hot, and hot things burn you. Stella knew this. She spilled hot coffee on herself. It was her fault. Perhaps if that seems overly simplified, that's just because it is incredibly simple.

Ford, 2007.01.14 (Sun) 17:06 [Link] »

I don't mean that the world should be idiot proofed, I mean that people shouldn't be held responsible for a consequence of a mistake which is reasonabley totally unexpected (the consequence that is, not the mistake). As I said before, I wasn't commenting directly on the McDonalds case so much as I was commenting on peoples' seeming emphasis on the fact that she was the one who spilled it and no other details mattered, at which point I made the argument above that people shouldn't be held responsible for unexpected (and I don't mean unexpected by idiots, I mean unexpected as in what nobody would reasonabley expect) consequences of a mistake.

I also meant that the people selling or making the product should remove any unneccessary dangers and warn of any unexpected dangers that they can't do anything about.

"As we've made clear above, with plenty of citations, McDonald's was doing nothing unusual in the production, storage, or sale of their coffee with regard to temperature."

Sorry if I missed that part. But I wasn't responding so much to your argument in the case as I was what I percieved to be your views on responsibility. It seemed to me that people in the comments and the post were trying to say that it didn't really matter if there was anything unusually dangerous about the coffee (and yes, I read your comment about how if the coffee contributed to the act of spilling somehow, but I meant a danger that doesn't cause the mistake but is an unreasonably severe consequence of that mistake), but apparently I misunderstood what exactly you were trying to say and I'm sorry I missed the part where the coffee wasn't unusually hot. I agree, if McDonalds was serving coffee that was no hotter than usual, the woman should've known, as any coffee drinker should, that there was a risk involved and can't blame anybody else.

Also, the use of extremes was simply to demonstrate a point, because I was under the impression that 'normal' coffee was hot enough to cause some discomfort and redness and that the 'extremely hot' coffee was hot enough to melt flesh. It seemed some people would bring this up and others would just go, "Yeah, coffee is hot, go figure." when there is an obvious difference between the two. But what I considered 'extremely hot' is apparently how most coffee is and should've been taken into consideration by the old woman. Again, I'm not a coffee drinker, I don't know these things.

The Two Percent Company, 2007.01.15 (Mon) 14:26 [Link] »

There's certainly no need to apologize, Ford — we were just trying to figure out why you were disagreeing with us when so much of what you said seemed to align pretty evenly with what we had said. And we didn't necessarily think that you were making all of the arguments that we outlined in our response; we were just outlining what some of your more general arguments would look like if they were applied to this case.

From what we can see, your view is that if the standard temperature of coffee was, say, 160 degrees, and if at that temperature, severe burns weren't possible, and if McDonald's served their coffee thirty degrees hotter at a temperature that could cause severe burns, and if there was no good reason to serve the coffee hotter and McDonald's hadn't taken steps to inform the public about this unexpected difference, then McDonald's would be at least partially at fault for the damages to Stella Liebeck. For what it's worth, we totally agree with the conclusion of this hypothetical scenario; but, as you know, all those ifs differ significantly from the reality of this case.

One of your statements speaks to a miscommunication we may be having:

...I was commenting on peoples' seeming emphasis on the fact that she was the one who spilled it and no other details mattered...

But the thing to keep in mind here is that those of us espousing the view to which you're referring weren't saying that no other possible details of similar cases could matter — instead, we were saying that the other details specific to this case, which are already known, were themselves (at best) "red herrings" to distract from the simple fact that Stella Liebeck spilled coffee on herself.

When it comes down to it, all we're saying is that this particular case, judged on its own merits, was frivolous and ridiculous, and that Stella Liebeck shouldn't have walked away with so much as one thin dime.

But the really important thing to remember is that, as we stated (and strongly believe), each case has to be judged on its own merits, individually. Precedents are fine, and can be helpful in interpreting how the law can be applied to various situations, but it's hard to come up with "general rules." As a simplistic example, our statement which does apply to this case, that being "the temperature of the drink is immaterial to the case," would not apply to the exact same case in which a customer spilled a McDonald's soft drink on herself only to find that it caused third degree burns. That, of course, would be somewhat unexpected (and perhaps unreasonable!), and therefore quite material to the case. Each case has to be judged on its own unique merits.

Arby, 2007.01.18 (Thu) 10:00 [Link] »

Hyperbole: A figure of speech in which the expression is an evident exaggeration of the meaning intended to be conveyed, or by which things are represented as much greater or less, better or worse, than they really are; a statement exaggerated fancifully, through excitement, or for effect.

"Somebody has said of the boldest figure in rhetoric, the hyperbole, that it lies without deceiving." ~Macaulay.

What the lady said: "Next time you get third degree burns on your genitals...let me know how you feel about Stella Liebeck taking advantage of McDonalds."

What Ten Percent titled: "In Which a Reader Wishes Third Degree Genital Burns On Us"

Poster complaint: She did not wish third degree burns on you.

Ten Percent's claim: We were being hyperbolic.

Hyperbole exaggerates the fact. Yours was not hyperbole, it was a wholesale change of content and intent. It is difficult to arrive at any other interpretation of her comment than: "If you are ever burned as Stella was burned, you would change your views on whether it is actionable."

Difficult -unless one wishes to diminish an opponent's position via strawman argumentation.

Having been called on it by a reader, Ten Percent compounds the strawman practice by doing it again: "When someone says anything along the lines of 'When you get hurt because you didn't listen to what I said, don't come crying to me,' what they mean is 'You'll get exactly what you deserve one day for not heeding what I just told you."

She didn't say anything 'along the lines of' -Ten Percent assigned new meaning to what she said.

Supporting your own strawman, Ten Percent continues with: "It isn't a wish for harm, per se, but rather an admonishment that if a particular form of harm does befall us, we'll deserve it."

Again, her statement was clear: if you are ever burned as Stella was burned, you'll understand her reaction of suing McDonalds. It is a great leap to twist that into what Ten Percent assigns, apparently awarding yourselves the ability to read minds as you do so.

"She was pissed off at us, and we took her statement precisely the way she intended it."

Correction, Ten Percent's ability to precisely read minds, thereby revealing what someone 'really' meant.

"To be clear, what she was saying was "Someday, when you get badly burned by coffee, you'll deserve it."

No.... what she said was very clear: "Next time you get third degree burns on your genitals...let me know how you feel about Stella Liebeck taking advantage of McDonalds."

Only by assigning your own biases could you determine that she 'really' meant that you'd deserve getting burned. All she said was that you'd understand Stella's lawsuit if you experienced the same.

I used to post here about a year ago, but left because of the inherent hypocrisy of Ten Percent's appeals to objectivity and reason, etc., so frequently punctuated by the exact opposite.

Whelp, nothing's changed here. See you next year!

PoolGuy, 2007.01.18 (Thu) 19:52 [Link] »

Whoa! Is Arby gone now? I suppose living in his/her world would be more correct and more factually intact, but, damn, it just wouldn't be much fun.

To paraphrase Lamont Cranston's narrator:

Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of Judith? The TPC knows!

RRyan, 2007.01.19 (Fri) 12:08 [Link] »

I can't stand the dipshits that can't differentiate between humor and seriousness. Happens all the time to me.

I usually just say I'm sorry you don't think it's funny...and you're a retard.

Darthcynic, 2007.01.19 (Fri) 22:06 [Link] »

Theres always a pedant a lurking to cut straight to the irrelevant.

Btw "whelp"?, should that not be "well"?

The Two Percent Company, 2007.01.20 (Sat) 04:46 [Link] »

You don't seem to have made such a great impression on our readers, Arby. In our opinion, though, you really seem to have an interesting take on this. No, wait...interesting wasn't what we meant. We were, er, exaggerating. We're thinking more along the lines of "boring."

Hyperbole: A figure of speech in which the expression is an evident exaggeration of the meaning intended to be conveyed, or by which things are represented as much greater or less, better or worse, than they really are; a statement exaggerated fancifully, through excitement, or for effect.

Wow. That seems remarkably familiar. Especially the parts we've bolded. Oh, that's right — that might be because that's exactly what we did. We even openly stated that we did it, when questioned.

You quote Tommy B.:

"Somebody has said of the boldest figure in rhetoric, the hyperbole, that it lies without deceiving." ~Macaulay.

(Incidentally, one of our favorite Macaulay quotes, originally directed at John Dryden, seems almost prophetic of your own existence: "His imagination resembled the wings of an ostrich. It enabled him to run, though not to soar." You've got the literary chops, Arby, but your teeth are remarkably dull.)

So, let's get this straight...we "lied" about Judith wishing genital burns on us (fancifully conveying a much worse exaggeration of her statement for effect), and then proceeded to pretty much completely ignore our own fanciful title and simply discuss the information and arguments involved in our exchange with her. And where exactly, Arby, would the deception lie? In what way did Judith's particularly hostile statement (embedded in her clearly emotional response) and our retelling of it affect the facts of the case being discussed? In what way did we build the foundation for any arguments based on this "lie"? Ah, that's right...no way, and nowhere. The title was a throwaway line, which was only discussed further because some readers mistakenly assumed it had anything to do with our arguments. Incidentally, we use a lot of throwaway jokes in our titles, and this is the first one anybody has taken to heart. Nobody seems to have had any complaints regarding, for instance, "MCI: Molesting Children Incessantly," "Breaking News: Republican Stops, Thinks," "Elmo Busted for Being Annoying," "Arkansas on ID Stickers: 'We had our fingers crossed!'" or "This Kid is in High School & He's Already Smarter than Bush" (well, that last one was pretty true, actually). If you want so badly for us to be "wrong" that you'll resort to attacking a throwaway line — the kind we use quite frequently in our titles and our Rants — just to try to make us "look bad," well...you seem to have some real issues, here. The next time you spill hot coffee on your genitals and get third degree burns, maybe then you'll understand, and reflect on your oddly misplaced anger at us.

Oh, wait, was that rude? Mean? Uncalled for, even? Yeah, it was. There's no mistaking our feelings toward you, just as there's no mistaking Judith's feelings toward us. You see, we've already explained our intent in choosing our title, and we've already explained why we're quite confident that we have discerned Judith's intentions in choosing her statement. You're welcome to believe our stated motivations, or not — but, if not, then kindly piss off. We really feel little inclination to explain our actions over and over to some whiny, pseudoliterate pissant who obstinately counters any explanations already offered with a terribly pathetic "Nuh uh, you did not!" We'll address your points this once — slowly and carefully, so that even you might have a chance to understand why you are both utterly incorrect and, in fact, quite a complete dick.

As we have already explained, quite patiently, there was no straw man in the first place, simply because the title joke has nothing to do with our arguments. At all. Please do elucidate on how you think it does, Arby. In that light, your assertion that we have "compounded" the straw man is blatantly untrue, as there was no straw man to begin with; your suggestion that our defense (of the choice of title) itself is a straw man is more believable, though we still disagree.

It's quite simple for those of us who interact with other humans on a daily basis to discern meaning from commonly used phrasal structures (which is the point of saying "anything along the lines of," by the way — this kind of phrase is so common that there should be a Latinized name for it, but we were at a loss to come up with one). There's no "mind reading" necessary.

Consider the common parental rebuke: "If you burn your hand on the hot stove after I told you not to touch it, don't come crying to me." By your logic, such a parent is saying, "Next time you burn your hand...let me know how you feel about not listening to me." Which is absurd in context. The parent — who is also engaging in exaggeration for effect, as we doubt he or she wishes harm to his or her child — is pretty clearly suggesting that "When you get your hand burnt because you didn't listen to me, it'll be your own damn problem and serve you right." It's a way of demanding compliance through, essentially, a promise of harm to come. (And no, the harm doesn't come about through the actions of the speaker. We're somewhat confident that a guy who valiantly tracked down the definition of "hyperbole" can figure out how "promise" is used in this context.)

Similarly, Judith's sudden and uncalled for "parental rebuke" — which neither had any substance with regard to our discussion nor was appropriate in a rational discussion of facts and opinions — is a pretty clear suggestion that if we get genital burns from hot coffee, it will be our own damn problem and serve us right for being such mean nasty people who don't automatically see the "merit" in Stella Liebeck's case. (Really, you'd think Judith had some kind of stake in Stella's lawsuit.) See, there's that "promise of harm to come" that demands our compliance with Judith's opinions. We found it rather amusing that she came to that. We just find you kind of irritating, like an itchy pimple.

All she said was that you'd understand Stella's lawsuit if you experienced the same.

Again: this is absurd in context. To any idiomatic speaker of English, her statement doesn't even remotely convey the meaning that you attribute to it. She said "[we'd] understand Stella's lawsuit"? No. She said, verbatim, "...let me know how you feel about Stella Liebeck taking advantage of McDonalds." Now, in light of her actual words — instead of your own misinterpratation of them — do you honestly and lucidly believe that this was an invitation from Judith to get in touch with her should we ever spill hot coffee on ourselves? Of course not. That's just silly. Nor, in the real world, is it an invitation to "think about" our position upon incurring third degree burns.

Further, your own elaboration of Judith's statement — which we believe is a far more distorted version than our admitted hyperbole — suggests that we would "understand Stella's lawsuit if [we] experienced the same."

If you are ever burned as Stella was burned, you would change your views on whether it is actionable.

The problems with this assertion are multiple.

First off, we hope you meant to say we'd agree with, not "understand," Stella's lawsuit — we understand it pretty darn well, thanks, we just don't think it's a valid suit.

Second, assuming you corrected "understand" to "agree with," that would still be an untrue statement, as would the one we just quoted. Even if we spilled hot coffee on ourselves and received third degree burns, we would not ever seriously consider suing the provider of the coffee. That particular fact is not our "opinion" based on currently never having experienced coffee-induced third degree burns; it is part of the core of our own beliefs, and we simply would not contradict it purely out of physical pain and emotional reaction. Your misappropriation of Judith's statement to say otherwise really just shows how very little you know about her statement or us.

And third, and the real point of it all: Judith did not say that. If we are "assigning [our] own biases" to "determine [what] she 'really' meant," Arby, can you truly not see that you are doing precisely the same thing? Wait...didn't you mention something about hypocrisy?

Finally, it is the height of spite and rudeness to get the name of your interlocutor incorrect not once, not twice, but eight times — every time you mentioned it, in fact — in a row. Was it really, really hard to read, oh, any portion of our page, or the title bar of your browser, or perhaps notice the giant "2" at the top of our website? That certainly seems to indicate just how much you care about having any polite, rational discourse with us, Arby, and it isn't quite the best way to get others to see what little there is of your point. No, we're not "offended" — we really don't care if you exhibit your oblivious misanthropy for all the world to see — but you might want to brush up on those communication skills.

As a note, a search of our comments reveals zero contributions from anyone named "Arby," or anyone with your e-mail address, other than the comment above. You may certainly have used a different handle and address in previous comments...though you seem inordinately proud of your contributions (much like an infant who's proud of a particularly nasty bowel movement), and it makes us wonder why you would choose to disavow any of them through a change of name. We're looking forward to seeing what identity you decide to use when you make your triumphant return in 2008. Or maybe, more accurately, we're hoping you realize what an irritating hypocrite you've been and you don't bother commenting again. Hm. Yes, that second one is more likely.

Twisted, 2007.01.23 (Tue) 13:25 [Link] »

I could have sworn the last time I bought a cup of coffee(which was about 3 years ago) at McDonald's the cup stated "HOT" on the side of it?

The Two Percent Company, 2007.01.25 (Thu) 16:39 [Link] »

Wait, stop the presses! This is just bizarre, folks. That's "bizarre" as in "what, is he some kind of creepy stalker dude?"

You might recall, a few comments up, the illustrious Arby — who, aside from entirely misrepresenting the circumstances of our Rant and our follow-up comments, and (in an astounding show of hypocrisy) claiming that our "biases" distorted the meaning of Judith's second e-mail, also claimed the following:

I used to post here about a year ago, but left because of the inherent hypocrisy of Ten Percent's appeals to objectivity and reason, etc., so frequently punctuated by the exact opposite.

Well, gee...we actually just found your past contributions, Arby. In fact, we received a contact form submission from someone using your exact (and unique — that is, hard to just randomly pick) e-mail address — a submission that came in on January 16, a mere two days before you posted your exceedingly dimwitted comment. The content of the submission was as follows:

Name: Constant Reader

The James Randi Educational Foundation is making major changes in its $1,000,000 Challenge, a good topic for your blog.


Scroll down to "A Major Revision"

While we still aren't aware of any of your posts from "a year ago," it seems that as recently as last week, you didn't find us nearly as hypocritical (or unobjective or unreasonable) as you made us out to be in your comment. Hell, you were cheerfully sending us information to blog about, not to mention calling yourself a "constant reader." Odd, that. Do you usually just start making shit up when you get all cranky? Never mind, we don't really want to know. You may continue in your efforts to just piss off.

Andrew, 2007.01.26 (Fri) 17:01 [Link] »

I'm new to your website (I discovered it through the AOL news link), but I will probably become a frequent visitor.

Now to more relevant thoughts. This particular rant caught my eye since my family is in the coffee retail business, more simply: we have some cafes. I can identify at least two distinct biases I have in this case. The first bias is the cost and annoyance of changing cups to include a warning "CAUTION: CONTANTS EXTREMELY HOT!" However my gut reaction was that Ms. Liebeck deserved some compensation for her medical bills.

Other posters have already pointed out that the way McDonalds prepares and stores coffee does not make good coffee. The temperature that the coffee was maintained at after brewing was purely for financial gains--to keep it hotter longer. I agree with you that this does not make McDonalds liable for burns. However, the coffee McDonalds served Liebeck was much hotter than any cup of coffee you would get at home. Very few coffee makers are able to reach the temperatures recommended for brewing by the National Coffee Association. It's safe to assume that Liebeck knew that the coffee was hot, but she may not have realized just how hot the coffee was. I don't know the specifics of the case, for example whether she was a frequent customer and thus would probably have known that McDonalds serves very hot coffee. Obviously coffee is going to be hot, but McDonalds coffee was much hotter than one might reasonably expect it to be.

I agree with your comments about tort reform for the most part. In general a situation like this should be attributed to the stupidity/clumsiness/laziness/etc. of the "victim". Unfortunately there are some circumstances that make this case difficult to settle. While McDonalds had no legal responsibility in the incident, it was acting in a reckless manner. Just to make my position clear, since I don't think I've really done that yet, this was a frivolous lawsuit, but not a perfect example of what's wrong with the system.

The Two Percent Company, 2007.02.01 (Thu) 10:58 [Link] »

Andrew, you said:

Other posters have already pointed out that the way McDonalds prepares and stores coffee does not make good coffee.

Actually, we don't think that's been pointed out at all. In fact, we'd say that the opposite has been pointed out — that the optimal temperature for brewing and maintaining coffee for taste is at or higher than the temperature that McDonald's was using.

The temperature that the coffee was maintained at after brewing was purely for financial gains--to keep it hotter longer. I agree with you that this does not make McDonalds liable for burns.

It seems to us that this was actually a second reason to keep the coffee as hot as they did, but yes, we agree that, whether this was the only reason or a peripheral reason, it still doesn't make McDonald's responsible for the spill.

However, the coffee McDonalds served Liebeck was much hotter than any cup of coffee you would get at home. Very few coffee makers are able to reach the temperatures recommended for brewing by the National Coffee Association.

Well...we disagree. While we haven't ourselves done a comprehensive test of coffee makers for temperature, it seems that at least the ones referenced in the links above are capable of reaching the stated temperatures, and they seem to be widely — if not predominantly — available to coffee drinkers. In addition, we are aware of at least two tested home coffee makers that do reach at least the temperatures in the Liebeck case — Tom tested his home coffee maker, and it clocked in at 195 degrees, and Berlzebub over at the Bronze Blog recorded his at about 200 degrees. Yes, these are anecdotal, but they seem to suggest that there are home coffee makers that do reach these temperatures. Further, the fact that this is the target (or "recommended") temperature seems to indicate that those coffee makers that don't reach this temperature range are the exception, and not the other way around. And from a common sense standpoint, avid coffee drinkers — like any folks who are really into something — tend to go in for all the "official" recommendations; it seems like an awfully strange assertion to say they're all buying coffee makers that are unable to achieve those temperatures.

It's safe to assume that Liebeck knew that the coffee was hot, but she may not have realized just how hot the coffee was.

We don't tend to believe that most people could quote a temperature range (let alone an exact temperature) for the coffee they drink (unless they've had a reason to research the topic specifically, which is rare). As a result, we think that the discussion of whether she "knew how hot it was" is a red herring (as we've mentioned a few times). The question would seem to be whether any reasonable person knows that spilling a fresh cup of hot coffee on their body can cause severe burns, and we believe the answer to that question is a resounding "yes." And keep in mind — even if the coffee was significantly cooler, as we've already discussed, it could still have caused severe burns.

Obviously coffee is going to be hot, but McDonalds coffee was much hotter than one might reasonably expect it to be.

Based on all of the information already discussed above, we can't agree with you that this coffee was "much hotter than one might reasonably expect it to be." That doesn't seem to be supported by the facts.

While McDonalds had no legal responsibility in the incident, it was acting in a reckless manner.

Again, based on what we just reviewed — including the statement above — we can't agree with you that McDonald's was "acting in a reckless manner." In addition, we don't understand how you can say on one hand that they were reckless, and on the other that they had no legal responsibility for the incident. We would posit that they were not reckless, and that, logically, they also had no responsibility for the incident.

Just to make my position clear, since I don't think I've really done that yet, this was a frivolous lawsuit, but not a perfect example of what's wrong with the system.

Fair enough. If you'll recall, the issue was pressed by Judith after our vague reference to it in the Score — it wouldn't necessarily have been our "poster child" (if it even is now) for frivolous lawsuits if we hadn't really looked into it. We still think it's a pretty demonstrative example of the legal system being misused and misapplied — it seems, to us, that many people (not necessarily you, Andrew) are being lenient due to the subtle (or not so subtle) influence of the "Little Old Lady vs. Big Bad Corporation" factor — but we can understand why you don't think it's quite that bad.

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