McDonald's Hot Coffee lawsuit: deliberate, corporatist urban legend


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If only someone had written about this earlier, I might not have embarked on my scalding-myself-for-fast-cash scam…


So a lawyer says the system which makes her lots of money works fine.
What about all those medical lawsuits that have no caps and are based entirely on outcome and not good practices.
Tort reform is more needed for our hospitals than insurance reform was.

I love when I hear expensive tests ordered or unhealthy amounts of radiation on healthy patients just to cover some Docs ass for malpractice.


[quote=“doctorow, post:1, topic:30980”]
What actually happened was much more sordid, and the deliberate distortion of the story – which is ultimately about a company that caused repeated, horrific and preventable injury to its customers – is a tidy story about how corporations have convinced us that they are victims of out-of-control tort lawyers.[/quote]

Colour me utterly unsurprised.


Watching the “Hot Coffee” movie was a definite eye-opener for me and I’d recommend it to anyone. That poor lady tried to be so reasonable the entire time and McDonalds didn’t even get half the punishment they deserved.


Every doctor that I have asked personally about lowering healthcare costs has told me tort reform would be the single biggest thing. I guess even if you have a general practice the insurance is crazy high, and it leads to unnecessary tests.

Regarding Liebeck v McDonalds, you do realize this is just the other side’s propaganda, right?

Liebeck’s lawyers advanced proof that the coffee was between 165 and 170 degrees when it spilled, well within industry standards both then and now. Even McDonalds intended temperature (185 degrees) was within the industry standard. The 700 cases of burns (some of which were as serious as Liebeck’s, most however, were less serious) were over a 10 year period and translates to 1 burn per ~24 million cups of coffee. Virtually every other “hot coffee” case has been decided for the coffee producers (the exceptions being Liebeck v McDonalds, a case that was settled out of court, and a decision that the case could move forward.)

I am not a tort reformer, and although I haven’t researched them as much as the Liebeck case, the other cases discussed in the Hot Coffee documentary appear to be travesties of justice, but Liebeck was wrongly decided because she was a sympathetic plaintiff and McDonalds managed to be a very unsympathetic defendant. As the court in McMahon v Bunn-O-Matic said, this was something first party health and accident insurance (i.e. Liebeck’s) is intended to handle, not the courts.


Yup, because insurance companies are well-known for passing the savings on to the people buying insurance from them.


And yet, Texas tort reform did not reduce costs, or even number of tests.

It’s almost as if the doctors you’ve spoken to are experts on medicine, not economics.


One would hope that would eventually correct itself.

Every doctor pays insurance.

By the same logic, we should listen to taxpayers who say reducing taxes is the best way to reduce the cost of govt.

Like everything, I am sure it needs reform or updating. the idea that it is the central problem with our system seems to be a bit of propaganda.


Exactly, the real answer for the USA is a true single payer system for health care.

Of course, this is the only reason we still don’t have it:


this is just the other side’s propaganda

Can you provide valid links to sources that back that up, please?


Every single time this story comes up anywhere I am told that it isn’t what I think. Oddly enough it always turns out that actually it seems to be.

When I mention that while I don’t blame Ms. Liebeck for making the best of a flawed legal system, I am still against punitive damages as a matter of principle, then I am usually shouted down by a chorus of “WHY THE FUCK DO YOU FUCKING HATE GRANDMAS WHO HAD THEIR GENITALS SCALDED SHUT, YOU MONSTER!!!”.


Why are you against punitive damages? If you were held liable for someone’s medical bills it might well be financially ruinous for you. For McDonald’s, it’s a rounding error. A cost of doing business. Tax-deductible. Why should the punishment be so inequitable? If you were to negligently cause the scalding of an elderly woman’s genitals you’d be in prison at least, in crippling debt at best. What prison do they send Ronald McDonald to?

No punitive damages means that the wealthy can inflict damage with impunity, since it costs them essentially nothing.


Well, now, they could hardly put him in with Hamburglar could they? He wouldn’t fare well. Best to let him off altogether.


First of all, obviously I am not against compensatory damages and recovering legal costs. I am also in favor of including damages for things like pain and suffering that may be hard to quantify. However I do not believe that damages should depend on the identity of the defendant. Whether McDonald’s scalds you or I do, the damages should be the same.

If not letting McDonald’s scald customers is in the public interest - and I would agree that it is - then that should be handled as a matter of public law, whether criminal or consumer protection, and prosecuted using public resources. I consider leaving the enforcement of public interest to private parties quite literally medieval. There is just too much systematic inequality both between plaintiffs and defendants and from one plaintiff to the next.

They could just fine him instead of awarding punitive damages. In addition to that often there are specific natural persons responsible which could be sent to prison if the state was a little more proactive about that kind of thing.

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To be clear, it absolutely DID happen. An old lady did in fact spill coffee in her own lap, she did sue McDonald’s, and she was awarded nearly $3 million in court. All of that did in fact happen.

The problem is, the devil’s completely in the details in this case. Like most people, I didn’t know until years later that she received skin grafts for the 3rd degree burns the coffee gave her, or that McD’s coffee was so searingly hot that over 700 people had complained of burns, or that the old lady and her family were essentially goaded into suing McD’s by McDonald’s themselves. Or that they only asked for help with the medical bills, and that the $3mm was reduced by the judge. All of these things are true, too, but as the article says, the media just picked up the Hot Coffee = Millionaire angle and ran with it. Like most people, I pictured a greedy old lady spilling some rather warm coffee and gleefully pocketing handfuls of cash, thanks to CNN and late-night comedians.

So, while the full truth is awful and shocking, it’s also sort of silly to say “it never happened”, because it did.


What’s the issue with punitive damages? Not like anyone’s gonna put an exec in jail for making the policy or anything. Where’s the incentive to change, if the court doesn’t make a financial incentive?


Yes, if only we would set the poor old Market “free” of legislation so it can “correct itself,” all would be right and good! (Never mind that it would just make it easier than ever for the wealthy to continue increasing the size of the wealth gap.)