Hot Coffee Lawsuit, is America’s Legal System Really in that much Trouble?

The last couple of posts have been pretty depressing, so I thought I would write something fun.

Since discovering the skeptical movement one of the most interesting things that I’ve learned about is that many of the “facts” that are a part of the popular consciousness are actually myths or exaggerations of real stories that have gotten out of hand.

The idea that the legal system in the US is nuts is one of these things that I, and I think a large number of people, have always just taken for granted as being accurate. But in learning about a lot of famous court cases, I’ve been wondering if there really is any truth to this.

When people state that the American legal system has gone to hell, the anecdote that they use is the story about the woman who spilled hot coffee on herself and then successfully sued McDonalds. But after looking at the facts behind the case, it’s  my opinion that she was entitled to win the lawsuit:

For years, McDonald’s had known they had a problem with the way they make their coffee – that their coffee was served much hotter (at least 20 degrees more so) than at other restaurants.

The woman involved in this infamous case suffered very serious injuries – third degree burns on her groin, thighs and buttocks that required skin grafts and a seven-day hospital stay.

The woman, an 81-year old former department store clerk who had never before filed suit against anyone, said she wouldn’t have brought the lawsuit against McDonald’s had the Corporation not dismissed her request for compensation for medical bills.

After careful deliberation, the jury found McDonald’s was liable because the facts were overwhelmingly against the company. When it came to the punitive damages, the jury found that McDonald’s had engaged in willful, reckless, malicious, or wanton conduct, and rendered a punitive damage award of 2.7 million dollars. (The equivalent of just two days of coffee sales, McDonalds Corporation generates revenues in excess of 1.3 million dollars daily from the sale of its coffee, selling 1 billion cups each year.) – In the end she was just rewarded $480,000

The US legal system may be in trouble, I don’t know enough about it to be able to determine that. But the McDonalds cofee lawsuit shouldn’t be cited as evidence of a problem.

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3 Responses to “Hot Coffee Lawsuit, is America’s Legal System Really in that much Trouble?”


  1. 1 Global Villager June 2, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    “(The equivalent of just two days of coffee sales, McDonalds Corporation generates revenues in excess of 1.3 million dollars daily from the sale of its coffee, selling 1 billion cups each year.) – In the end she was just rewarded $480,000”

    Just because someone or something is very successful and wealthy does not mean that they should have a big target on their back or should have to pay more than the average bear. I get the impression that is your attitude here, at least it comes across that way.

    In any case, if I am misreading you I apologize but the sentiment I describe above is popular among many. Wealthy people and companies are looked at with derision because it is assumed they reached that position dishonestly or because of some sort of strange jealousy. As an educator I see this attitude all the time. The students who excel are made to feel bad about their success because they must be teacher’s pet or they must have some unfair advantage. People get mad at you when you don’t want to be a “regular Joe”.

    Anyways, that was a tangent, back to the coffee thing. Sorry, coffee is hot, logically you know that you might get burned if you spill it. Did Mcdonalds have a role in the spill? I don’t think so. The lawsuit is ridiculous!

  2. 2 linzeebinzee June 3, 2009 at 12:13 am

    I agree that large companies shouldn’t be targeted just because they have a lot of money. The reason I pointed out the $480,000 was just to show that it was less of a payout than the millions that people speak of when they mention this lawsuit. Actually, the woman only wanted them to pay $20,000 for her hospital bills, but they refused so she took them to court. I suppose the jury decided that she was entitled to more. Also, the sentence you pulled that from also contains this: “the jury found that McDonald’s had engaged in willful, reckless, malicious, or wanton conduct”, which is the more important part.

    Yes, coffee is hot, but it shouldn’t have been that hot. They were knowingly keeping it at, on average, 20 degrees hotter than it needed to be. At that temperature third degree burns can happen in as little as 2 seconds, so it was irresponsible for them to be keeping it that hot. No, McDonalds didn’t spill the coffee on her, but people spill coffee on themselves all the time, I know I do, and since they had already had 700 out of court settlements over burns because of their coffee they should have learned their lesson and turned down the temp. She had 3rd degree burns on 60% of her body, something that was preventable by them simply keeping their coffee at a lower temperature. Not a big deal and it would even save them energy costs in their restaurants.

    I had also left this out of the original blog post: “A McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified in the case that the Corporation was aware of the risk of serving dangerously hot coffee and had no plans to either turn down the heat or to post warning about the possibility of severe burns, even though most customers wouldn’t think it was possible.”

  3. 3 saladors June 24, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    hotcoffeethemovie.wordpress.com


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