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The mysterious case of the clown’s not so funny hot coffee capper Or… they… really are… we, aren’t they

April 18, 2012
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The mysterious case of the clown’s not so funny hot coffee capper

Or…  they are really we.

Many people are cataleptic with regard to the truth about the McDonald’s  Hot Coffee law suit… here are some facts as well as some of my own memories and analogical reasoning surrounding this incident.  For instance, I knew that Ms Liebeck was not driving and that the vehicle was not moving when the cups contents were spilled on her.  I also knew that either this particular restaurant or a different McDonald’s restaurant had been cited or warned or sued about the excessively high temperatures of their coffee before this event.  In addition, I was a cognizant of the fact that she was badly injured i.e. burned/scalded and had required medical attention.  Finally, I knew that she had or was going to sue McDonald’s for her medical expenses.

The reason I came to know these things escapes me now, but I think I looked it up because it seemed so preposterous at the time I first heard about it.  February 1992 is a little over two decades past, but I can remember there was a lot of talk about “frivolous” law suits and how much these were costing consumers due to increases in things such as malpractice insurance and higher premiums for businesses policies as such that were then of course being passed on to the customers.  Their seemed to be a real zeitgeist about such things at that time, and many people were looking for scapegoats to blame and donkeys to pin the tail on.  As opposed to really checking the facts or perhaps taking a peek behind the curtain.

As I remember it, consumers, [greedy consumers] were really to blame, not the hapless businesses or corporations many of whose products were… in truth… defective, misrepresented, malfunctioning and or injurious and even deadly.  They (the hapless businesses and corporations) it seemed were the “actual victims” according to most…  Americans can be such maroons, all they have to do is identify some villain and like lemmings, it’s over the cliff we go.

Who are they you might ask… well they is anybody spewing a trope or monadology convenient to ones pre-established cognitive bias… i.e. any crap that seems to agree with your world view.  Thus, ironically… they are we.

I did not know the real extent of her injuries nor learned the outcome of her lawsuit until now.  I can remember thinking that one- it seemed unfortunate and avoidable, both on the part of McDonald’s and on the part of Ms Liebeck.  And two- that it must have really hurt… as in been very painful.

As I previously mentioned I knew Ms Liebeck had required medical treatment but was unaware as to the extent of this.  According to the author, Kevin G. Cain senior, counsel at the law firm of Martin, Disiere, Jefferson & Wisdom, L.L.P., “A vascular surgeon diagnosed Liebeck as having suffered full thickness burns (or third-degree burns) over her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas.  These third degree burns extended through to Liebeck’s subcutaneous fat, muscle, or bone.  While she was hospitalized for eight days, Liebeck underwent skin grafting, and later underwent debridement treatments.  Liebeck was permanently disfigured and disabled for two years as a result of this incident” (Cain).  So that’s what 190 degree does to human tissue… how lovely.

The article states that Ms. Liebeck originally asked McDonald’s to pay only her medical expenses, of approximately $11,000 but that they had refused, offering her $800.00 instead, following which Ms. Liebeck hired “a Houston attorney named Reed Morgan who had filed a similar hot-coffee lawsuit against McDonald’s in 1986”.  In the previous, case Mr. Morgan represented a woman who had also received third-degree burns from McDonald’s coffee, and had in that case deposed a McDonald’s quality assurance executive who stated he knew of the danger but did not intend to lower the temperature of McDonald’s coffee.  In addition, prior to going to court Mr. Morgan offered to settle for $90,000, and again McDonald’s refused , (p. 15).

Which really makes one wonder… who’s the bad actor here, the person who supposedly (according to the mendacious and mocking “water cooler” gossip common at the time) tried to put sugar in her coffee while driving or the supercilious self aggrandizing management at McDonald’s?

As it turns out it is the later… as well as the feral corporate culture in America that spawns such contemptible vermin.  If I sound a little antagonistic well that is because I am.  I see no reason to respect or pay homage to a bunch of “thugs” who get away with crimes simply because they are dressed in three-piece suits and accomplish their iniquitous deeds from the safety of their boardrooms by way of their minions on K-street and the briberies of our policy makers along with the resultant malfeasance that ensues.  These actors are only slightly more contemptible than certain large sections of the American public, who seem to revel in their blind obedience to this dogma or that… but I digress.

Now as it turns out McDonald’s, had 700 previous claims against it for “defective” coffee, i.e. it was too damn hot, and they, McDonald’s, had paid out over $500,000 to settle these claims.  Not only this but also, that many of these claims resulted from serious injuries to [their] customers.  They had in other words a history of acting with conscious indifference to their customers, and for that the jury said they must pay.

Why so hot one might ask… well because, other so-called experts told us to… so there.

700 persons/customers burned by their coffee… over half a million paid out in damages… and still the lights do not come on.  Masters of the universe…  I don’t think so.

“McDonald’s continued to demonstrate this same corporate indifference.  McDonald’s human factors engineer, Dr. P. Robert Knaff, testified that the number of hot coffee burns that occur are “statistically insignificant” when compared to the billion cups of coffee McDonald’s sells annually” (p. 16).  “Statistically” insignificant… really… what about the people as in human beings?  Was that Dr Knaff or Mengele I get confused?  Both show the same basic disregard for human suffering and dignity the only difference is in the application.

“Do you have in mind a number of how many people would have to be burned for you to become so concerned that you would insist that burn specialists be consulted and something be done to sell this coffee at a lower temperature?  A: No, I don’t have a number in mind” (p. 16).  Human factors engineer…Priceless.

Judge Scott, “This is all evidence of culpable corporate mental state and I conclude that the award of punitive damages is and was appropriate to punish and deter the Defendant for their wanton conduct and to send a clear message to this Defendant that corrective measures are appropriate” (p. 17).

Frivolous lawsuit… unsympathetic corporate defendant… these are the main ingredients in “how stupid can we be while they laugh all the way to the bank” soup.  Pretty damn stupid it seems. “Lawyer-bashing” as a pass time has its roots in some stark truths about our civil as well as our criminal justice system.  Neither of which really lives up to either their promise or potential.  Both of which at times more frequently than not act instrumentally against the interests of the very entities they were instantiated to serve.

Tort reform, as the name so inauspiciously implies refers to changes in civil law that would limit or reduce tort litigation or damages.  The idea is to cap damage awards as well as curtail the kinds and numbers of suits brought against our upstanding corporate brethren, think Ford Pinto and you get the picture.  The problem there was not that the Pinto was actually any less safe than other cars in its class, it was.  The problem was and is that a pervasive corporate culture exists in the country that not only allows but also encourages the use of such things as cost–benefit analysis in situations concerning human life and dignity.

For instance, which will cost more… making it right and safe… or paying off statistically insignificant claims based on the actuarialized downsized valuations of the worth of human suffering and life.  Never mind the obvious fact that happy, uninjured persons are statistically unlikely to sue in the first place.

As corporations see it, a better idea than actually meeting their lawfully purchased contractual obligations of merchantability and fitness of purpose is to forestall, confound, and discourage as many injured parties as possible from seeking or receiving a just compensation for the harm they have caused them.

Still better yet they say… we will do this thru the same legal system and with the same officers of the court that are supposed to protect and repair those injured thru our breaches of duty.

In terms of justice, due process, and the rule of law… the truth is, despite protestations to the contrary, that this country … is really governed by the “golden” rule… those with the gold… make the rules.  Anyone who says different is either a shill for the system or blind as the proverbial bat.

In the real world it is, entelechy- “potentia et effectu“, no matter the merits of your claim, unless you have lots of money… or someone stands to get lots of money by assisting your cause you will rarely see justice done in the courts because the masters of their masters pay better than their moral compunctions.

“Therefore this is the best of all possible worlds”, (Leibniz, p.90).  Or is it?


Cain, K. G. (n.d.). The mcdonald’s coffee lawsuit. Journal of Consumer & Commercial Law, 14-19.

Leibniz, G. The Monadology (La Monadologie, 1714).

tort reform

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2012 2:24 pm

    You raise some interesting points. Definately, the corporate world (another “they”) has the big bucks to pay experts and legal departments for all their cost-benefit analyses. But, I also worry that the other “they” (that is we) become innurred to thinking about what role our own stupidity plays in some of the injuries we may suffer.

    For example, should a ski area be responsible for some idiot skiing out of control and committing suicide by tree? No. I don’t think so. But if someone hits an unmarked tree or one that is not padded, or a lift support tower that hasn’t been padded, here come the lawyers. That is just a small, off the cuff example of what I think of as frivolous law suits. Now, if said ski lift tower fails and skiers riding the lift are injured due to poor quality goods or poorly maintained equipment, I say go for ’em. There is a difference. And of course, “we” rarely take the time to parse out the facts about high visibility lawsuits as you have done with this infamous McDonald’s case.

    Nice sleuthing!

  2. April 19, 2012 1:15 am

    I’d forgotten about this case in my recent McMusings. Thanks for the reminder; I needed it. And for the pingback to my post!

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